How to Request Stellar Letters of Recommendation for College

A post by Dr. Kristen Willmott & Dr. Michele Hernandez

The season for juniors to request letters of recommendation inches closer and closer by the day. Teacher recommendations are a vital part of the college admissions process. High school students who get into the very top colleges are those with off-the-charts teacher recommendations that say a student is among the strongest in a teacher’s career, high impact, and a true leader in class. We encourage our students to ask 2 junior year teachers to write their recommendations before leaving for summer vacation after completing junior year. It’s a courtesy to give teachers the summer months to write recs.  This is something to bear in mind NOW for all juniors!

How do you pinpoint which teachers to ask to write your recommendations? Here are some tips:

1-Ensure you are excelling in his or her class. You need to be a student who actively and frequently participates, is responsive, earns top grades in the class, commits to extra learning outside of class time, and more.

2-Make certain the teacher is enthusiastic about you and your plans for college.  How can you do this?  Engage in a dialogue –tell Mr. Smith and Mrs. Thomas WHY you want to go to college, where you’d like to study, what you’d like to study, how you plan to excel, etc.  Note: This is NOT a 2-minute conversation before or after class on a Friday!

3-Cultivate relationships with your teachers. The same goes for your college counselors! Stay after school; participate in clubs/activities your teachers lead if you are interested in these; request an informational meeting with your teacher to seek your teacher’s input on your coursework, your grades, your academic focus, and your college plans! Then, LATER ON, meet with your teacher again to make the request for a letter of recommendation, and be sure to include helpful materials (see # 5 below for info on WHAT materials).

4-Understand that your teachers balance between 5-50 requests for letters of recommendations every year. They simply cannot say yes to every student and their job descriptions don’t require them to.  It’s a myth that all teachers have to or “should” accept a student’s request for a letter of recommendation.

5-When you “pop the question” for a letter of recommendation, have typed, organized, proofed supplementary materials prepared and ready to give to your teacher IF he or she agrees. These include:

  • A condensed activity sheet, resume, and/or list of awards, etc.  Include your contact information.
  • All letter of recommendation forms/websites/addresses/deadlines for each college.
  • A short statement of purpose describing the colleges you are targeting, your academic focus, your plan for approaching the admissions process, etc.
  • A handwritten thank you note with a promise to follow up with the results of your college applications. The thank you note will be sent after the letters are sent to colleges, so this is after-the-fact. A 2nd thank you note should be sent, or handed to, the teacher when you accept an offer of admission in the spring of your senior year. He or she will want to know where you are going to college and how his or her letter of recommendation helped you get there!

In our annual Boot Camp programs for current juniors/rising seniors we often tell our students to try to step into the role of an admissions officer.  The same applies here –if you are a current junior, you need to be thinking about making the request for letters of recommendations soon. Try to step into the role of your teachers. As Mr. Andrew Simmons, a current California teacher states in an article published this week in The Atlantic,  “Writing a meaningful letter of recommendation takes time, a luxury that teachers don’t have . . . My job is not to draw big neon circles around a student’s achievements so that an admissions officer will pay more attention to them. Instead of bragging on behalf of the student, I want to render human the person admissions officers may view as a collection of letters and numbers, to say what those grades and scores cannot. A recommendation letter can discuss the academic and, when relevant, personal challenges a student has faced. It can clarify a student’s learning style and distill what he or she brings to a conversation about an academic topic. After all, colleges are trying to build classes of students, not simply usher in as many high-scoring kids as fate will permit. A recommendation, when it is done right, highlights, instead of purely the triumphs, the intangibles in a student’s application.”

Dr. Michele Hernandez, who read hundreds of teacher recommendations during her time in the Dartmouth admissions office notes,

Teacher recommendations are an integral part of the admissions process. Why? Because numbers (grades and scores) don’t tell the whole story –what kind of scholar is the student? Is he/she a leader of class discussions? A mover and a shaker? Or, simply a diligent, conscientious student who does well but doesn’t contribute anything special? Colleges want DYNAMIC students, students who light up the classroom, who encourage scholarship, who push others to excellence, who are collaborative learners and who inspire others. The only way to get a sense of what a student is like in class is via teacher letters. But often teachers resort to mere summary, which is NOT at all helpful. Colleges would rather here anecdotes, vivid examples, a portrait of what the student is like.

Are you a current senior? Tell us how your process of requesting letters of recommendation went?  Did the new Common Application make things better or worse? We’d love to hear from you!

3 replies on “How to Request Stellar Letters of Recommendation for College”

What about recommendation letters from endowed chairs at top 10 national universities? Does this help or not, after all, the student will *not* have had an actual course taught by the recommender/professor (the exception being stated in the next paragraph)? Are these type of recommendation letters helpful or essentially meaningless? For example, I stayed for a week with a Princeton professor and she write a recommendation letter for me. Will this really help?

But taking this a step further, how about a recommendation letter from a teacher/professor who taught a student during a summer program? Does this help? Is this the real admissions application value of taking a summer program, i.e., to get a recommendation letter from your summer professor?

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