By Katie Azevedo, M.Ed.
The college application process has many moving parts, each of which requires planning ahead. (Hello, SAT prep!) And, each of which can be stressful. One part of the college application process that often overwhelms or confuses students is the teacher recommendation letter.
This tutorial will teach you everything you need to know about college letters of recommendation, including how to ask for college recommendation letters, who to ask to write them, and when to (kindly!) make your requests.
Do I need college recommendation letters?
Yes, you will almost always need to submit teacher recommendation letters as part of the application process. While some schools do not require letters of recommendation, those are few and far between.
According to the Common App, which is the online portal through which you will apply to nearly all US-based colleges, recommendation letters are critical because “their insights help application readers get to know a student better by identifying accomplishments, persistence, character, personality, and potential fit.”
How many college recommendation letters do I need?
Each school has its own requirement. Some schools, though not many, don’t require any letters, while some require four. The average is two; most colleges and universities in the United States require students to submit two letters of recommendation as part of the college application.
Who do I ask to write my college recommendation letters?
Asking the right person to write your letter of recommendation is important. Below are some key rules to follow when thinking about who to ask:
- Always ask for college recommendation letters from qualified adults who know you the best.
- Do not ask family members for recommendation letters.
- Do not solicit recommendation letters from teachers or contacts from years ago; stick to people who are in your current sphere of connection.
- Follow each college’s specific requirements. Some colleges and universities want one letter from a teacher and one from a counselor; some schools want both letters from teachers; and other schools are more flexible, allowing letters from teachers, counselors, coaches, and other community members with whom you have relationships.
- If you’re applying to field-specific programs, ask for a letter of recommendation from a teacher in that field. For example, if you’re applying to a computer science program, seek a letter from your computer science teacher.
When do I ask my teachers for letters of recommendation?
Ask your teachers and counselors for letters of recommendation the semester before you plan to apply to college. Traditional high school students who plan to apply to college in the first semester of their senior should communicate with teachers before the end of junior year.
A word of caution: As someone who has personally written over 100 college letters of recommendation for students over the years (!) I can assure you that they take significant effort and time to write. Asking a teacher for a letter should never be a last-minute request – trust me.
College recommendation letters and gap years: If you’re taking a gap year after high school and plan to apply to college in the fall one year after your high school graduation, talk to your current high school teachers while you’re still in school. Explain your plans to take a gap year, and ask them if they’d be willing to write you a letter in the near future. Then, proceed with my instructions for How to ask for college recommendation letters in the section below.
How to ask for college recommendation letters
Let me state again that writing college recommendation letters takes significant time and effort. Teachers, counselors, and coaches often receive multiple simultaneous requests from students and are sometimes put in the position of needing to decline requests because of limited time and resources. (We want to write all the letters! We want nothing more than to support our students by singing your praises in a recommendation letter! But sometimes we are simply maxed out.)
Knowing this, you should ask for college recommendation letters with abundant tactfulness and gratitude.
Below are the exact steps I recommend for asking someone to write you a college recommendation letter.
1. Have a complete student resume prepared before asking anyone to write you a recommendation letter.
When someone agrees to write your letter, give them a copy of your resume so that they have key information to help them build their letter. Your resume should have three sections: academic, activities, and job/volunteering.
2. Ask your teachers (counselors, coaches, etc.) in person, not via email.
Whenever possible (sometimes it’s not), approach your letter-writers face-to-face. Find a good time before or after school – not in the two minutes before class starts – to initiate the conversation.
3. Go into the conversation hopeful, but not completely expectant.
Remember, the person you’re asking to write your recommendation letter might say no, and that’s okay. Don’t take it personally -they just might be over-committed to writing other students’ letters.
4. Be respectful and polite.
Approach your recommenders with courteousness and gratitude. Clearly explain why you are asking them specifically and why you value their opinion. Remember to express your appreciation for their time and effort.
5. Offer to help.
Once a recommender agrees, ask if there’s anything you can do to help with the process, in addition to providing your resume. Sometimes a teacher will ask you to send a follow-up email or remind them in a few weeks; if so, do that.
6. Say thank you.
After your recommenders have submitted the letters, express your gratitude by sending a sincere thank-you note or email. Let them know that you appreciate their support and the time they dedicated to writing the recommendation.
What if I think my recommender has forgotten about my recommendation letter?
This can happen. If it does, it’s not usually a problem. If your deadline is approaching and your recommender hasn’t yet submitted their letter on your behalf, simply approach your recommender (or send an email) with a friendly reminder. Here are my tips and best practices for emailing teachers.
A reminder email could look something like the following:
Dear Mrs. Teacher Name,
We had spoken back in [June] about you submitting a college recommendation letter on my behalf. Again, thank you so much for agreeing to do this – I am very grateful!
My college application deadline is approaching on [November 1st], and I will need to have all my recommendation letters uploaded before then.
Is there anything I can do to help facilitate this process? If so, please let me know. I’ve attached my resume again for your reference.
Thank you so much!
What’s the whole timeline for asking for college recommendation letters?
When you ask for a college recommendation letter, the timing is very important. I’ve outlined the general timeframe below, as well as in an infographic below that.
Note: This is the timeframe for traditional high school students applying to college for the fall semester after their spring high school graduation.
April-June of junior year in high school: Initiate in-person college recommendation letter requests.
Summer between junior and senior year: Work on all other parts of the college application, including the Personal Statement and all college-specific supplemental essays.
September of senior year: Re-establish contact with those who agreed to write you letters. You can do this via email or in person. The goal is to a) maintain a friendly connection, b) confirm their agreement to write the letter
November-February of senior year: Recommendation letters need to be submitted prior to your college application deadline. Send reminder emails if needed.