Series: College Applicants' To-Dos

September is good time of year to start asking your school teachers for letters of recommendation. It’s early enough that your teachers aren’t likely to be swamped with requests already. And for most of you, it’s a week or two into the school year, which means teachers have overcome the start-of-the-year rush.

But before you start charging through the halls with your recommendation requests, you have some decisions to make. These decisions will largely depend on the schools you’re applying to, and the kind of application you plan to pull together.

Use the following advice to get started, and if you’re stuck, ask your tutor or school counselor for help.

Choose Wisely

Plan on asking for up to three, but this decision depends on your application requirements. Some schools will also want a letter from a school counselor and/or a principal, so make sure to look up the requirements for the schools on your application list.

In rarer cases, colleges will allow you to provide supplemental letters. Generally speaking, you don’t want to add to your application package unless this supplemental letter truly enhances the admission officers’ understanding of your particular circumstances or qualifications. 

First and foremost, choose teachers who will write you a positive recommendation. There is no point choosing the school’s “hardest math teacher” if you didn’t do well in his or her class. It is always better to have a glowing recommendation from new and unknown teacher than a letter by an impressive teacher who is struggling to come up with your contributions to class.

If you are lucky or well prepared enough to have done well in all your classes and are generally well liked by teachers, you have more considerations. And these considerations have everything to do with the package you are pulling together. Discuss your best options with your tutor or school counselor.

A glowing recommendation will shed light (pun intended) on not only your academic ability but also your personableness.

Prestigious schools go to great lengths to find an academically successful freshman class. So in general, you want to ask teachers in whose classes you excelled or at least performed well. 

But colleges also put plenty of stock in what kind of person you are. After all, you will be living on campus with other students and even faculty members. They don’t want a freshman class full of maladjusted geniuses. They want freshmen who will enrich campus life through their social engagement. (Just look at the “Personal Qualities” section of this student’s Harvard application to see how much this aspect of your profile could tip the scales in your favor.)

So as you look for teachers who praised your academic performance, also think about which of those teachers you connected with on a more personal level.

Did you ever “hang out” with teachers (or, at least, with your friends in their classrooms) during lunch? Did a club sponsor ever see you in action, outside an academic context? If you have the freedom to choose among many teachers who think highly of your academic performance, think about who might also have meaningful things to say about you as a person.

Make Their Job Easier

Our last area of advice is to make it easier for the teacher to write his or her best possible recommendation. Most schools do not require teachers to write any minimum number of letters, so these teachers are volunteering their limited free time to recommend you.

You know your teachers better than anyone else. For some teachers, you will want to schedule a few face-to-face meetings; others are great over email and prefer communicating with you at their leisure. Whatever your teacher’s preference, make yourself available to him/her.

When you approach a teacher, specify why you are asking him or her because this may not be readily apparent. For instance, if you feel that the rest of your application sufficiently flaunts your academic abilities, you might not necessarily choose a teacher in whose class you were the top student. Maybe you’re choosing Mrs. Becker because she is an alumna of your dream school. Maybe you’re choosing Mr. Halstead because you feel he knows you on a more personal level than other teachers do, even though you only got an A- in his class. It will help your teachers tremendously if you let them know that, on top of the general information provided by a recommendation letter, you thought they would help get across something else about you.

After teachers have agreed to write you a recommendation, thank them for going above the call of duty, and send them information that is relevant to your experience in their classes.

The sample letter below is a template to help you write something that will both show your teachers how much their classes meant to you and give them useful information to draw from.

It should go without saying that you should rewrite the letter so that it uses your voice, not that of an adult trying to imitate a student!

Hi Dr. Johnson,

Thank you so much for agreeing to write a letter of recommendation for me. I’m sure you have many many students asking you for the same kind of help, so I’d like to provide whatever information I can to help jog your memory and also to give you insight into my experience of your class.

I greatly enjoyed your classes, and because of that, I put in more effort than I think was necessary just to get a good grade. As such:

  • I read all the plays last semester (and Tess) within the first two days I got them because they were addicting, and I annotated and re-read each of them several times over the course of the unit.
  • I enjoyed the intellectual vitality of our class discussions.
  • Listening to others’ opinions and the questions they raised often helps me come up with my own insights, and I try to share my opinions in discussion.
  • I tried to come up with ways to inject liveliness into our class discussions. (Proudest moment: I was the one who nicknamed Thracymacus “Mr. T”⁠—which stuck for the rest of our Socrates unit.)
  • I tried to ponder and write about challenging topics in my essays and reading logs.
  • I always have a lot of seemingly non-cohesive ideas about the text, but I tried to connect them in my thesis statements. You also taught me the difference between an irrelevant and non-cohesive idea and a complicating one.

Your assignments helped me take risks:

  • I tried to be creative with my Much Ado sonnet
  • I watched the movie version of Much Ado on Netflix and tried to immerse myself in an emotional response to the play before I wrote the sonnet. I'm not too emotionally expressive though, so you may not have noticed!
Please feel free to disregard the list if it doesn’t help you at all. At the very least, I hope it gives you a sense of what I got from your class and to let you know that your teaching really did have an impact on me.

Thank you for everything,

James Boswell

A final note about using this template: resist the urge to include anything that doesn’t ring true to your experience. Yes, the bullets above sound great. But if you weren’t a similarly over-achieving student in your teacher’s class, including similar bullets will only muddle your teacher’s image of their topic—you! 

So, just like your college essays, don’t let the anxiety of “looking good” overshadow the real task of letting the entire package reflect who you are.

If you need additional help with your request letter, your tutor will be happy to help you. 

Good luck with your applications!






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