ApplicationRecommendation Letters

Recommendations: Who, When, How?

By September 5, 2013 No Comments

As school gets back underway, seniors will begin approaching teachers for recommendations for college. But, who do you pick to be your teacher recommendations?How do you approach them? Can you get recommendations from non-teachers?

Who to Choose


Teacher recommendations should come from junior year core subject (math, science, social studies, English and/or foreign language) teachers. Having to dig back to earlier grades can raise questions in an admissions office as to why the student could not find a more recent teacher. Additionally, students grow up over their time in high school. The most accurate recommendation, therefore, comes from a teacher who was relatively recent. Teachers are going to evaluate the student based on a variety of academic metrics, so it is important to use core subjects as they get at the academic component that colleges find helpful.

So what if you don’t have the best recommendations from core subject and/or junior year teachers? Well, it is certainly acceptable to go back a year. Or perhaps one of the senior year teachers was also the student’s freshman or sophomore year teacher. This person would have a good perspective on the student and his/her growth. Stay away from non-core subject teachers unless the student is looking to study a specific area that is not included in those five subjects. For example, a student looking to study art and design may have his/her studio art teacher complete the recommendation. The teachers must focus on the academic side of the student – if all the teacher writes about is how great a student performed in a sport or in an extracurricular, the college will not have the information it needs to make an informed decision about the student’s ability to perform in the classroom.

How and When to Ask?

At the beginning of the school year, many teachers (the so-called “popular” ones) will be inundated with requests for recommendations. This does not mean to wait a while to ask. Asking should take place in two steps. The first step is for the student to find a quiet time to approach the teacher in person to ask if s/he would be willing to write the recommendation. If a teacher seems to hesitate, DO NOT push back. This means his/her recommendation will be subpar or average at best. Find another teacher.

If the teacher agrees to write the student’s recommendation, the student should then thank the teacher and inform him/her that the student will send a follow up email. In that follow up email, the student should include a few things:

  1. Another thank you

  2. An activity sheet (or resume)

  3. A short narrative of a project or topic covered in the class that the student did particularly well or was particularly interested

  4. Logistics – list of schools and deadlines

  5. Students often change their mind about schools, so it will be important to tell a teacher that the list is not necessarily final.

  6. A deadline – ask the teachers to get it done by a certain date for a specific school. Do not be too demanding, so connect the date with the school deadline.

Supplemental Letters

Additional letters of recommendation can come from a variety of sources, but do not start sending in dozens of these. Perhaps there is one or two people who can speak about a student from a different perspective. A coach, employer, or mentor can make a good supplemental letter as this person can describe the student outside of the school setting. Be sure to check the schools’ policies on these as many schools will not accept the extra letters. Most are okay with these letters so long as they provide new information about the student.