A recommendation letter for college is a summary of years of hard work both in high school and before. Does yours show off your outstanding work…or barely scratch the surface of what you’ve accomplished?
Recommendation letters play an important role in the college admissions process. A 2019 survey from the National Association for College Admission Counseling found that colleges put more weight on recommendation letters from counselors and teachers than activities or interviews, especially schools with test-flexible policies. But whom (and how) do you ask for these important letters as you prepare for college and scholarship applications?
Whom to Ask for a Recommendation Letter
Recommendations should come from teachers and counselors who know you well. It’s the best practice to find a variety of recommendations. Ideally, you might ask one humanities teacher and one STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) teacher—also include your counselor on the list.
You could also include an extracurricular connection—like a coach, supervisor, club sponsor, or religious leader—to provide variety. It is a bonus if someone you ask has experience in your prospective major or planned career path, so they can provide additional insight in their letter.
Quality is more important than quantity, so choose wisely and avoid asking for more recommendations than the application needs. Reread the criteria or specifics for each application to make sure you ask people who can fulfill the requirements.
When Should You Ask?
The relationships necessary for recommendations start earlier than the day you need your letters. Build academic relationships that can lead to strong recommendations and put in the effort to deserve a good letter, taking the time for teachers and counselors to get to know you personally.
These relationships lay the foundation so when it’s time to ask for recommendations, it’s easy for people to say yes. Many colleges open applications over the summer, so consider asking for letters in late spring or early summer of your junior year.
However, many internships, jobs, specialized programs, early/dual education, and leadership opportunities (which you may want to pursue throughout high school) also require recommendation letters, so start thinking about them even earlier. You may need them as early as your freshman year.But don’t forget that it’s about more than the recommendation letter itself. Do what you can to be the kind of student your teacher or counselor will want to write a letter for:
- Ask for extra help when needed, or offer help to peers
- Ask and answer questions with depth and clarity of thought
- Participate and show effort
- Be on time for class, prepared, with no late assignments
- Push yourself to do your best rather than completing the bare minimum
How to Ask for a College Recommendation Letter
When making the actual request, give plenty of time (6-8 weeks if possible) before your deadline—but also share the deadline with your recommendation writer. The more time allowed, the more detailed and thorough the recommendation can be.
Keep in mind that counselors, teachers, and other advisors receive many requests, not just yours! If you don’t provide enough time, they might not be able to write your letter—or if they do fulfill your request, the letter may not be as thorough as it could have been if you have given them more time.
Make your request in person, face to face, if at all possible, and do what you can to make writing the letter as easy as possible. You can:
- Provide a current resume, including explanations of items as needed
- Provide academic transcript, if appropriate
- Share your application and essay, if appropriate
- Describe the program or scholarship which requires the letter (via flyer, website, etc.)
- Offer to write a starter letter (especially for counselors) to show what important details to include (special projects, experiences, or achievements,) while also demonstrating your writing skills
After Asking for a Recommendation Letter
Follow up after your initial request to see if your recommendation writer needs any more information from you and to check in about submission, especially if it is close to deadline. Some applications allow you to verify online if a recommendation has been submitted on your behalf, so try this if you are able to.
After your recommendation has been submitted, make sure you show gratitude to your teachers, coaches, or counselors for their efforts on your behalf. A handwritten thank you note is a wonderful way to share your appreciation for your writer’s time and effort on your behalf. And depending on your school’s policy, you could also give a small gift card or other gift as a sign of gratitude.
A letter of recommendation for college is an important step in the admissions process so remember to start building relationships early on. Do what you can to make the process easy for the teachers and counselors who support you and invest in you in this way.
And if you get into the college you wanted or receive that scholarship, don’t forget to let your letter writer know! After they invested the time writing a letter for you, they will be thrilled to hear your good news.