by Amanda Yen – Student Writer

LETTERS OF REC 101

Which teachers do I ask?  Above all, your recommenders should be reliable, teachers you can trust to write well about you.  They should be teachers from your junior or sophomore year –– bonus points if you’ve had them for multiple classes, since you spent more time with them.  You should choose teachers who’ve seen you thrive in their class.

One should be a teacher in a subject related to your major.  The other can be a teacher in any subject, UNLESS you’re a STEM major, in which case you should have one from science and one from humanities.  Colleges will sometimes specify which subject areas they want.

Have a few teachers in mind, in case one or more of them declines.  Remember that when you ask for a letter of rec, you’re asking the teacher to put their credibility on the line for you,  so make sure you choose teachers who have seen you at your best.  Teachers won’t really write negative letters about students –– if they don’t think they could honestly write a shining letter for you, they’ll simply decline your request.

I don’t know my counselor.  How do I ask for a recommendation?  If you go to a big high school, there’s a good chance you’ve spoken to your counselor like, never.  It may seem weird to ask someone you don’t know for a letter of rec.  But this is required for a lot of college apps, so your counselor is probably used to writing about kids they don’t really know.  

Ask in person, even if this is the first time you’re meeting them.  Usually, they have a big brag packet that you’ll fill out with everything they don’t know about you.  It’s a good opportunity to influence what they’ll put in your recommendation, so spend some time on your answers.

Who else can I ask?  If a college allows you to submit a recommendation from someone other than a teacher, do it.  This can be a coach, mentor, research advisor, or someone else you’ve worked with.  It’s an opportunity to show your interests, so make sure you choose someone who has seen you put a lot of passion and work into their specific field.  Make sure they can write well!

How should I ask?  You should approach them in person, if possible, ideally when there aren’t many other people around.  This is a lot scarier than asking over the phone or in an email, but it’s the most sincere and personal way.  You can start by talking about how you enjoyed their class, but be specific about what you liked about it, so it’s genuine feedback instead of straight flattery.  Don’t spend too much time on this, because it can start to sound like sugar coating.  Just make eye contact, speak clearly and politely, and then ask if they would be willing to write you a letter of rec.  

If they say yes, remember your thank you’s, and ask what they need from you.  Most teachers have a brag packet template that they’ll send you to complete over the summer. If not, you can offer to give them a copy of your resume and/or activity list! 

What if they say no?  Thank them politely, and remember, there are many reasons why a teacher might decline.  Some teachers have a limit to how many letters they will write, and it could be that they’ve already received too many requests.  They have to do this on their own time, so it’s definitely a lot of extra work for them.

When should I ask?  Ideally, you’re asking at the end of your junior year, before the summer starts. Your favorite teacher might be the favorite teacher of many other students! Asking early allows you to ensure that you have recommenders lined up for applications in the fall.

What’s a brag packet?  It’s a questionnaire-type thing that helps your teacher recall all the stellar things you did while you were in their class, and what you were like as a student.  It may ask for a resume, lists of activities and high school classes, and how you describe yourself as a student.  

Honestly, it’s a lot of writing.  So get started on it as soon as you get it, and make sure to do a little of it every day.  If you take your time with it, you’re more likely to give high-quality answers.  Just make sure to get it back to your recommender in a timely fashion.

How do I make sure my recommender submits on time?  Deadlines for recommenders vary by college.  Some schools allow a grace period for submitting letters of rec, while others need it on or before the application deadline.  In some cases, the school won’t even look at your app until they have all of its parts, including letters.

This is why it’s important to choose reliable recommenders.  Sometimes, choosing a good recommender means choosing someone who’s organized, and will meet the deadline.  It’s a good idea to swing by their classroom from time to time, just to say chat and follow up about the letters during your application process.  This is how you can help nudge them along to get the letters done and submitted.  Just don’t do it too often.  You don’t want to sound like the alarm clock that won’t stop.

My letters of rec are in.  What do I do now?  Say thank you!  Write a card, give a gift, ask if there’s anything else you can do for them.  They’ll probably want to know which school you end up choosing once the process is over, too, so make sure to swing by and chat.

Michelle Mai

Michelle Mai

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