Asking for Letters of Recommendation: A Stress-Free Guide

Letters of recommendation are a significant part of your college application. If you’re preparing to ask a teacher for a letter of recommendation, follow our guide to make the process as stress-free as possible.

When to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation

It’s a good idea to request letters of recommendation by the end of your junior year. If that timeline isn’t possible, be sure to make your requests at the very beginning of your senior year.

Many teachers like to get started on their recommendation letters over the summer. By October, they’ll probably be swamped with last-minute requests from stressed-out seniors, so it’s important to get your request in early. Your letter will be much more detailed and personal than the letters that were finalized at the last minute. Great writing takes time!

Who to Ask for a Recommendation Letter

College admissions officers read recommendation letters in hopes of learning what you’re like as a student. Give them the full picture of your strengths and talents by asking teachers from different subject areas for a recommendation letter.

Naturally, you’ll want to get a recommendation letter from your most beloved teacher, but you should also consider asking a teacher whose class was more of a challenge for you. Have you ever taken a class where you initially struggled, then (after lots of hard work) soared? If so, that teacher is probably capable of writing an extremely compelling recommendation letter about your grit, drive, and motivation. The best recommendation letters come from teachers who know the student extremely well, so consider teachers you’ve gotten to know in more than one class or through an extracurricular organization.

It isn’t appropriate to ask a family friend or relative for a recommendation letter. It’s also generally inadvisable to go too far back into the past, so don’t request a letter from a middle school or elementary school teacher.

How to Ask a Teacher for a Letter of Recommendation

Schedule a one-on-one meeting with your potential teacher recommenders. Before school, after school, or during a free period is typically a good time to meet. Make sure that you don’t send your potential recommenders any automated messages through Naviance or the Common App until you’ve spoken in person and they have agreed to write a recommendation letter for you.

For many students, the toughest part about letters of recommendation is actually making the request. Asking a teacher for this important favor might feel understandably nerve-wracking.  If you’re feeling anxious about this part of the task, remember that your teachers understand this process. They watch seniors apply to college every year, and they expect recommendation letter requests.

When asking for a letter of recommendation, tell your teacher about your college goals and plans and express how much you would appreciate a letter of recommendation from them. Of course, be polite and respectful, and don’t forget to say thank you!

After your teacher has agreed to write your recommendation letter, share a list of the colleges or scholarship programs that will be receiving the letter. Be up front about your earliest application deadline so that they have a timeline in mind. It may also be helpful to provide a one-page resume. While you don’t want your teacher to rehash your resume in the letter, the resume may help to refresh their memory about your involvement in and out of school.  

Submitting a Supplemental Recommendation Letter

Many colleges also offer the option of submitting a supplemental recommendation letter, which can come from non-teacher mentors. You might request a letter from your supervisor at the part-time job you’ve held all through high school, a professor you worked for as a research assistant, or a community leader who oversaw your service work. Just like the teacher recommenders, the supplemental recommenders should know you well and be able to provide specific and compelling information about you. Make sure that the supplemental recommendation letter will add a meaningful new dimension to your application before requesting it.

Qualities of a Great Recommendation Letter

The strongest recommendation letters are specific and personal.  The recommender clearly knows and respects the student, so the letter radiates genuine enthusiasm and admiration.  These letters offer vivid details and anecdotes about the student’s engagement inside and outside the classroom. Some of the best letters we’ve read also included comments about what the recommender envisions the student accomplishing in the future.

Boilerplate letters are obvious to admissions officers and don’t add anything to your application.

Following Up With a Thank You Note

Always follow up with a kind and appreciative thank you note—either an email or handwritten letter. And don’t forget to let your teacher recommenders know when you start receiving those acceptances—they’re invested in the process now, too!