How do I ask for a Letter of Recommendation?
I received this question from a highly motivated 9th grade PrepWell Academy student. It’s a bit early for 9th graders to worry about this – and I couldn’t be more proud!  This is proof positive that our message is getting through. It is never too early to prepare well.

How important are letters of recommendation?
If you plan to apply to selective or highly selective schools, they are very important. After a few hours of staring at GPAs and standardized test scores, they all start to blend together – especially for application readers at highly selective schools where everyone posts impressive scores. Letters of recommendation can help you stand out from the crowd. In fact, qualitative inputs like this can serve as tie-breakers in many cases.

When are they needed?
Letters are not normally due until the beginning of senior year, but in no way, shape, or form should you wait that long to begin this process.

Whom do schools want to see letters from?
Typically, schools expect to see at least one letter from a teacher in your junior year, who taught one of your core academic courses (e.g. Math, Science, History, World Language, English). In some cases, you may be required or have an option to submit additional letters.

Which teacher should I choose?
Ideally, choose a teacher from a class where: (1) you performed exceedingly well, and (2) you had significant interaction with the teacher.  It would be even better if the class related directly to your area of academic interest on the application.

For example, if your coursework, extracurricular activities, personal statement, and summer jobs are all related to engineering, it would be great to get a letter from your AP Physics teacher – where you received an A, helped him or her on several research projects, and won a special science contest under his or her tutelage.

When should I choose?
Begin to assess which teacher(s) might be a good fit at the beginning of junior year. A prime candidate would be someone: (1) you like, (2) you have good rapport with, (3) who teaches your favorite class, (4) who teaches a class in your area of interest, (5) who might respond well to your requests to take on additional work or responsibilities, (6) who has a reputation for being passionate about their field, and (7) whom you could envision as a mentor.

Once you’ve identified a teacher, it’s time to shine. Approach each and every class with high energy, interest, and engagement. Volunteer to help, do your best work, and go the extra mile. Keep a log of special projects and assignments that you work on throughout the year. Ask intelligent questions, do extra research, participate in class, and show genuine interest in the topic.

I don’t mean for this to sound disingenuous, as if you are artificially trying to impress him or her. You are not. You are simply putting your best foot forward, so that this teacher will have good things to say about you when the time comes. Your intentions are well-placed and earnest.  It happens everyday in the real world.

Keep in mind, you are not obligated to tell your teacher that you intend to ask for a recommendation at the end of the year. In fact, I would avoid that. Again, you are not keeping a secret, because you may change your mind down the road.

What do you want the teacher to write?
Your goal is to have the teacher write something like, “[Student X] was the single best Physics student that I have ever had the pleasure to teach in over 22 years of teaching…her dedication to learning, intellectual curiosity, and engagement with the material was beyond compare”. I know this sounds pretty heavy, but this is what you want. This will get the reader’s attention.

Set your teacher up for success
At the end of junior year, assuming the teacher that you chose worked out, and you performed admirably, here are some tips to make your teacher’s life easier – which will add to your already legendary status:

  1. Ask early. Most students will wait until senior year to ask for a letter. You should not. Give the teacher at least 6 weeks to work on it. Ask them at the end of junior year prior to the summer.
  2. Ask nicely. Approach the teacher in person – not by text or email. Writing strong letters of recommendation is time-consuming and not easy. Show your appreciation for their efforts. It never hurts to tell them how much you learned in their class and that they’ve inspired you to major in [subject X] in college.
  3. Provide them with everything. Make sure your teacher is focused on writing about you and not researching things about you. Ensure that they have every bit of information about you that they might need. They would rather have more information than less. This includes reminders about: (1) what class you took with them and when, (2) your grades or special test results, (3) any exceptional work you produced, (4) research projects you helped with, (5) volunteer tutoring hours, or any (6) special recognition or awards you received in the class. You’re not telling them what to write, but you are making it much easier for them.
  4. Brag sheet. Fill out this sample brag sheet to help your teacher get to know you better. Answers to these questions need not be exhaustive, but it might give a teacher greater insights into your background and academic aspirations.
  5. Where should they send it? Be explicit about where to send the letter (e.g. submitted to your guidance counselor, submitted online to Naviance, straight to a college, snail mailed, etc.).
  6. The quality is a reflection of you. A well-written, tight, and insightful letter of recommendation will reflect well on you, your application, and your school – so choose your teacher wisely. The easier you make it for them, the more time they will spend on substance and quality.
  7. Thank You note. Thank your teacher after the letters have been submitted. A handwritten note is always a nice gesture. Maybe even invite them to your graduation party.
  8. Privacy. Most students sign a waiver that prevents them from reading the final letter of recommendation. Unless there is a special reason why you would want to see the letter, I would sign the waiver.

The examples above are simply guidelines. Like many things during this process, there are exceptions. Some schools do not require any recommendations at all; others make it optional; and a considerable number view recommendations as a vital part of the application – especially the most highly selective schools.

Also, consider casting a wide net and don’t limit your choices to teachers. For instance, if you’ve been a Boy Scout for six years with the same Scoutmaster who knows you as well as your parents, it might be appropriate to ask him or her to write you a letter of recommendation. They may “know you” much better than a teacher would. Keep in mind, however, that most schools will want at least one letter from a teacher in an academic environment. The key is to find individuals who can best capture your “essence”.

Once again, this tip is extremely important to know before it’s too late. Remember, timing is very important in the college admissions process. Prepare accordingly!

Never stop preparing,
Phil Black