How to Get a Great Letter of Recommendation

Six Tips for Getting Great Letters of Recommendation for College

One of the most important elements of your college application is the recommendation of a teacher. College admissions offices take these letters very seriously, and it is critical that you do your best to secure the best letters of recommendation possible.
Some students assume that there is nothing they can do to ensure that the letters are glowing testimonials. While you can’t really expect to sit in the room looking over the shoulder of your teacher as he writes the letter, there are many things you can do to increase the likelihood that the teacher writes a strong letter that will impress admissions officers everywhere.
Here is a step-by-step guide for making sure your letters of recommendation (LORs) are the best they can be.
1. Get Organized
Talk to your school counselor to find out how the school handles teacher recommendations. At some schools, the guidance office will submit the teacher recommendations from your file to colleges directly, along with your transcripts and the school report. At other schools, teachers are requested to send LORs directly to the colleges. Some schools manage recommendations electronically through software packages like Naviance, while others are using functions on the Common Application. The point is that you must know the procedures at your school before you even get started. And you need to follow those procedures, so as to make the lives of your teachers and counselors as easy as possible.
2. Decide Which Teachers Should Write your LORs
A good LOR tells a good story about the applicant. The story reflects the strengths—and perhaps a few weaknesses—of the candidate. A good letter contains some details, some examples, some bits of information that bring the candidate to life for the reader. And a good letter might also provide information about the student’s intellectual growth and development over time. Therefore you need to choose a teacher who knows you well to write your letter.
You also need to make sure that you choose at least one teacher in a core academic discipline. You are applying to college, not to a resort or a team or to a service club. Admissions officers want to know about your performance in and contributions to the classroom. If you like, you can add a second or third LOR from a band director, a coach, or the head of your youth group. These letters can help round you out as a person. But at least one LOR should be from an English, math, social studies, science, or foreign language teacher.
Finally, don’t assume that you should choose the teacher in whose class you are performing the best. Nor should it necessarily be the teacher of your favorite subject. As noted earlier, you need to identify the teacher who knows your work, who can tell some good stories, and who can highlight your positive personal qualities.
3. Establish a Relationship with Your Teachers
Well before you decide which teacher will write your LOR, you need to consider that a teacher will not know you very well unless you make an effort to get to know the teacher. Participate in class. Ask questions. Work hard. Go above and beyond what is required, to demonstrate your interest, your fortitude, your proficiency. Show up before or after school to ask questions, shoot the breeze, or comment about the course content. Express interest not only in the class, but in the teacher. Obviously, you will get along better with some teachers than with others. So focus your efforts on developing relationships with the teachers with whom you share some connection, some affinity.
4. Consider the Timing of Your Request for an LOR
Teachers are busy people. Don’t wait until the last moment to request an LOR. Don’t ask right after your midterm or final exam—when they are still grading stacks of papers. Don’t assume that teachers will write letters during school vacations (you don’t want to work during vacations, and your teachers don’t, either). We recommend that students ask for LORS to be completed before the end of their junior year.
5. Pop the Question
When you meet with your teacher to request an LOR, you will likely be nervous. Try not to worry. Teachers field these requests all the time, and they expect to be asked. Consider making your request after school or during a teacher’s off period. Don’t make the request via email or over the telephone. Do it in person: it makes a better impression. Your question can go something likes this: “Ms. Baker, out of all my high school classes, I have enjoyed yours the most. I feel that I’ve learned a lot from you. I like the material we are learning, and I think you’re a great teacher. I also think you bring out the best in me. I would like to ask whether you would be willing to write a strong letter of recommendation for me as I apply to colleges this year. Of all my teachers, I think you know me best, and I’d be pleased if you would write my recommendation.” You want to be complimentary of the teacher, but you also want to convey a sense of pride in the work you have done in the class. Brown-nosing won’t work. But if you have built a good relationship with this teacher, he or she will be delighted to give you an enthusiastic “yes,” if you craft your request in this way.

6. Provide Your Teacher With Adequate Information

After your teacher answers an enthusiastic “yes!” to your request, you should present him with a slim folder with everything the teacher needs to fulfill your request. The folder will contain a variety of documents (see below) that will help him in writing a detailed letter filled with anecdotes about your skills and abilities. Presenting this folder immediately will convey how seriously you take the teacher—and the recommendation.
The folder should contain:

  • Your resume
  • Your personal statement, assuming you have completed it
  • A short “statement of purpose” that outlines the sort of college you hope to attend and why you think that sort of college would be best for you. Write one or two solid paragraphs. Make sure to focus on the academic issues related to your college choice, so that the teacher can provide specific information to support your application.
  • A full list of the colleges to which you are applying, including addresses, with application deadlines clearly stated. If you are applying to particular departments, scholarships, or other special programs, makes sure to clarify that information for the teacher.
  • The recommendation form or forms the teacher will need to complete (note this might be the form your high school uses, or it could be the form from the Common Application, or you might include the form from each individual college to which you are applying).
  • If the letter is to be turned in to the school guidance office, include an envelope in which the completed letter can be sent to the guidance office.
  • If the teacher has to send the letter directly to the college, include stamped, addressed envelopes for each college to which you are applying (make sure to clip these to the appropriate blank forms, to make it easy for the teacher to do the collating).
  • Your contact information, including phone number, home address, and email address, in case the writer has any questions.
  • A short note of personal thanks to express your appreciation.

Many students want to know how many LORS they need. Generally most colleges want one counselor recommendation and one teacher recommendation. We suggest students obtain two solid recommendations from teachers. One should be from a teacher in a core subject (math, English, science, social studies, or foreign language). The second can be from another core teacher, or from an elective teacher who knows you well or in an area that the student hopes to pursue in college (a budding actor needs a letter from the drama teacher, for example). In some cases, a third letter from a coach, a youth group leader, or some other adult who plays a significant role in the student’s life may be included. Admissions officers spend a total of about seven minutes reviewing an applicant’s file. A pile of letters that say essentially the same thing will be more of a hindrance than a help.
Adapted from Montgomery Educational Consulting, June 2008