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Teacher-penned letters of recommendation are a vital aspect of college admissions applications – and for current juniors, now is usually the best time to ask for them! But which teachers should you ask, and how? Read on for more tips and best practices around teacher letters of recommendation.

Why are letters of recommendation important?
Thoughtful letters of recommendation help colleges visualize the characteristics you will bring to their community of learners. These letters provide another dimension to college applications by providing information that might not otherwise show up in the application. Teacher recommendation letters give college admissions officers an external observer’s insight into a student’s work ethic, persistence, overall character, passion, and more.

Which teachers do I ask, and how many?
Some best practices for determining whom to ask for a recommendation include:

  • Focus on core academic subjects. Admissions officers use teacher recommendations to evaluate a student’s ability to contribute to and thrive in academic settings, so they generally like to hear from math, science, social studies, English and/or world language teachers.
  • Ask your junior-year teachers. If you must stretch back to freshman year to find a teacher who will write you a great recommendation, it may give the impression that you haven’t been a star in any of your classes since then. If you had a teacher you really clicked with in 9th grade and have that same teacher again in 11th grade, this may be a perfect candidate, as long as you’ve been an excellent student in both classes!
  • Be sure the teachers you ask like you AND respect you academically. You may develop a great relationship with a teacher because you are friendly, funny, helpful or a hard worker. But if you got a “C” in the teacher’s class, you likely didn’t earn their respect academically. This tends to come across in recommendation letters: A comment like, “Connor tried really hard, and, finally, he was able to pass the class,” isn’t going to enhance your application.
  • Consider additional recommendations…Once you have identified and requested recommendations from two core-academic, junior-year teachers (who like and respect you academically), you can consider asking a coach, employer, advisor or elective-course instructor to write you an additional recommendation letter that may attest to other of your strengths, such as reliability, persistence, maturity, leadership, etc.
  • …but beware of too many recommendations. There is such a thing as too many recommendations, and often colleges will explicitly state what they will or will not accept. More than one or two beyond what the college requires is too many! Similarly, avoid submitting additional recommendations from people who only know you superficially. There is no need to contact your senator or a corporate executive to write you a letter (unless you did an internship or worked for that person).

 How do I ask for a recommendation?
Your high school counseling office may communicate about the process to the junior class. It’s important to follow their instructions, as schools may have different approaches and timelines they like students to follow.

For example, some high schools have “brag sheets” students can fill out to help provide a clearer and more complete picture of all that the student is involved in, or to refresh a teacher’s memory about standout moments or accomplishments from class. If your school doesn’t have a “brag sheet” template, it can be helpful to provide your own summary to help inform the teacher when you ask them.

Also, some schools want you to communicate more formally, while others may simply instruct you to catch your teacher before or after class and ask if they are willing to write a letter on your behalf. If you do not hear anything from your high school during April or early May, you can ask the counseling office how to proceed.

What if a teacher turns me down?
Don’t push if a teacher says no. They may not feel that they know you well enough to write a strong recommendation, or they may already have committed to writing as many as they feel they can manage. Trust that their reasons are valid and move on. After all, a half-hearted or hastily written letter won’t add value to your application.

Anything else?
Know that it is standard for students to waive their rights to see or review the letters teachers write for them.

Finally, be sure to formally thank anyone who does write you a letter, either with a hand-written note or thoughtfully crafted email. They have put  time and thought in on your behalf, and your expressed gratitude will go a long way!

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