November 10, 2014

Recommendations for Getting College Recommendation Letters

Here's the who, what, when, where, why, and how of asking for college recommendation letters.

Who to ask: your guidance counselor, teachers, coaches, employers. Basically, anyone in a position of authority who's supervised you in some way. They should know you well, like you, and respect you. Most importantly, however, they should be reliable. A great recommender is one who actually writes and submits the recommendation letter on time.

Who NOT to ask: parents, other relatives, your friends, famous people you don't know well. In short, anyone who's clearly biased and anyone who doesn't actually know you.

What to ask: Explain what you hope to achieve in college and ask if the potential recommender is willing to write a positive letter for you. If the answer is yes, give them a brief list of potential "writing points" for the letter. This list can include any research papers you've written, any insightful comments you made during class, etc. Give the recommender this list. Make writing the letter as easy as possible for them. If they offer to let you write a draft, that's great, but never bring up this idea yourself. Also, give them addressed and stamped envelopes for each college.

What NOT to ask: "I really need a strong rec letter because my grades are terrible. I know I haven't done all the work and I've turned things in late, but I'm really going to turn things around in college. You'll write a good letter for me, right?...No?...well, how about I just write it myself and you'll sign it?"

When to ask: EARLY! I can't emphasize this enough. The nicest teachers (the ones most likely to write gushing rec letters) are likely to get a ton of requests. Beat everyone else to the punch and ask at the end of junior year. This also gives recommenders plenty of time to write a nice and detailed letter for you.

When NOT to ask: Anytime from September to January of senior year. If you're reading this, and it's already the fall, ask the potential recommender ASAP. Other bad times to ask include when the teacher is in the middle of a lesson, when other students are standing around, when you've recently bombed a test or when you've recently gotten into trouble during class.

Where to ask: Ideally, in the recommender's classroom / office after school or during an off-period.

Where NOT to ask: In the cafeteria, in the parking lot as the recommender is running to his/her car, while you're sitting in the detention room

Why to ask: Because colleges require recommendation letters! These letters help admissions officers get a fuller picture of you.

Why NOT to ask: If you want to sabotage your college admissions chances by not including everything the application requests.

How to ask: "May I stop by during your off-period or after school to chat for a few moments?" Then, you actually ask them in the course of a one-on-one conversation about your goals and future.

How NOT to ask: "Hey teach, can you write me a rec letter? It's due next week."


  1. I really appreciate this blog! Thanks for helping all those scrambling, overwhelmed, confused, and sleep-deprived (studying for the SAT really is not a piece of cake!) high school sophomores, juniors and seniors (yes, I am one of them) show their dream colleges who they really are and how they shine.
    Thx thx THX!

  2. Great post, Steve. It's virtually the exact same for athletes getting letters of recommendation from their club and high school coaches.

    As with the "popular" teacher who gets a rec request from everyone, club and high school coaches know each fall that they can expect to write a slew of recommendations.

    Athletes can make it easier by (1) giving their coaches a heads up well in advance; (2) providing a list of teams they want to play for, college coaches' names and addresses; and (3) a short list of points the club/high school coach might want to address in his letter.

  3. Do the teachers sent the recommendation letters directly to the different colleges or do they give the letters to the student to send and are they sent with the application?