January 14, 2015

College Recommendation Letters | How to Ask Teachers

Many of my students feel timid about asking teachers to write them recommendations. It is natural to feel awkward about this---you are asking an authority figure to do you a favor, one that could impact your college admissions. However, there's no reason to freak out. Follow this step-by-step guide to get top-quality college recommendation letters from your teachers.

Step 1: Be prepared before you ask.

The teacher will be much more willing to write a good recommendation if you make it easy for them. This means preparing a little bit before you ask anyone.

First of all, make a list of all of the colleges that you are applying to, with the deadlines written for each school. Provide the teacher with stamped envelopes addressed to each school. In addition to being polite, these steps will ensure that the teacher gets the recommendations in on time.

It will also help if you provide the teacher with some information about yourself. This way, the recommendation will be more informed, personal, and detailed. You don’t want to overwhelm them with information that they won’t have time to read—do both of you a favor and leave out every newspaper clipping since middle school and your dance recital videos. However, if you prepare a resume and give them a copy of your personal statement (if you have already written it), it will help them understand your interests and motivations.

Step 2: Ask politely.

Teachers, like anyone else, are going to respond better if you are polite.

Ask as far in advance as possible. The end of junior year, or the very beginning of senior year, is a good time to ask. Teachers, like all of us, are busy, and if you do not give them enough time, they may do a quick, sloppy job on the recommendation. They will appreciate a lot of advance notice.

When you ask, there is no need to prepare a big speech. Just ask them to meet after school or during a free period. When you meet, say something like, “Ms. X, I really got a lot out of your math class and feel like you know me better than most teachers. I was wondering whether you could write me a strong college recommendation.” This gives them an out if they think they do not know you well enough to write a good recommendation (which, believe me, you want to know before they commit!), and is also polite and non-presumptuous.

99% of the time they will say that they would love to write you a recommendation. At this point, you can give them the materials you prepared in Step One. Also, ask them if there is anything else that you can do to make their job easier. (For example, they might ask for writing samples or a copy of your transcript.) The more prepared they are, the better the recommendation can be!

Step 3: Follow Up

As I said before, teachers are busy! It will help to give them a gentle reminder about one month before the recommendation is due. Make sure not to sound like you are nagging them, or nervous. You can say something like, “Hi, Ms. X, I just wanted to check if you need any more materials before submitting the recommendation on December 15th.” The teacher will appreciate the reminder.

After they have written the recommendation, write a thank you note! A nice, hand-written one is best. In the note, stress how much you appreciate them taking the time to write the letter, and how much it helped you.

As you can see, asking for the recommendations is no big deal. You might even say it is the easiest part of the college application—you don’t have to do any work! So don’t worry, and seniors, if you have not done so already, go ask your teachers now!


  1. I have worked with some college professors through internships at universities, will a letter of recommendation from them boost my chances of acceptance, or should I stick with letters from my teachers at school?
    Will a letter from a non-high school teacher set me apart?

  2. I am a dual enrollment student taking college classes for my junior and senior years. Is it appropriate to get both recs from my professors, or should I also get one from a high school teacher that taught me as a sophomore?

  3. Are you taking any high school classes as a junior or senior? If so, get one from a teacher and one from a professor

    If not, just get both from professors.

  4. Dear Steve, foremost, thank you for this article. It helped me a lot to write a request for a recommendation letter. But now I got a problem I do not know how to deal with. Namely, I asked two professors for a recommendation letter and when a week-or two passed without them responding back to me, I asked two other professors. Now all of them answered they are willing to talk on my behalf, but the Committee needs only two receommendations letter. What can I do? And how to tell politely to two professors I am not really in need for their reference for this application? Thank you

  5. @anonymous
    get all 4 and choose the 2 strongest. If you're not able to see, choose the 2 teachers that knew you the best. Keep the other letters with you. Can be handy in the future

  6. Don't be too brief but be precise. Make sure that every word counts. Write more than two or three paragraphs. A letter of recommendation for employment should be one page; a college recommendation letter should be 1 or 2 pages.

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