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How to Ask For a Letter of Recommendation for College and Scholarships
Letters of recommendation are an important part of both the admissions and scholarship application processes. A survey of admissions officers showed that after transcripts and test scores, letters of recommendation are considered among the next most important factors. But as a student, how do you ask for a letter of recommendation for college admissions and scholarships?
In my experience as an admissions officer, I have ready perhaps 15,000 recommendation letters and as a college counselor have written 100+ letters. In this post, I’ll talk about how you can get the best recommendation from the right teachers.
Jump ahead to:
- Why do letters of recommendation matter?
- How to ask for a letter of recommendation
- Next steps after your recommendation request
- Frequently asked questions
Let’s get started so you can get the best recommendations for your scholarship and admissions applications!
Why do letters of recommendation matter?
While grades and test scores tell admissions officers how you performed academically in high school, essays and recommendations tell admissions officers who you are. As we will discuss, this is why it is important for your primary recommendations to be focused on you as a student and learner (though this doesn’t necessarily mean that the recommendations should come from the classes you had the highest grades in. Most scholarships and colleges are going to be most interested in what your teachers and guidance counselors have to say.
Next, let’s talk about how to ask for a letter or recommendation from your teachers and guidance counselors.
How to ask for a letter of recommendation
Now that we have discussed what a letter of recommendation is and why they matter, let’s dive into how you can ask your teachers for a letter of recommendation.
Pick teachers from your junior year
College admissions officers are looking for recommendation letters that are recent. This means that students should focus on teachers they had during junior year. In some cases, it can be okay to choose a non-junior year teacher who knows you really well and who you’ve had for a few semesters, but I’d always defer to the teacher you’ve had more recently. Senior year can work too, but remember that you might not have enough time to get to know your teacher (this can be especially tricky if you intend to apply anywhere Early Decision or Early Action).
When you approach your teachers for recommendations, you should always frame it as a question and not assume that a teacher will write for you. I used to advise my high school students to email their teacher and ask if they can chat with them briefly after class.
Your email can look something like this:
Hi Mr. Smith,
I was wondering if it would be possible to speak to you briefly after class on Tuesday? I just had a quick question
Recommendations during remote learning
Many students may have experienced remote learning due to COVID-19 pandemic. If this was the case, it may have been difficult to forge strong relationships with your teachers in a virtual environment. If this was the case, keep in mind that admissions officers will understand that your relationship with the teacher was different because of virtual instruction. In these situations I’d still recommend teachers from junior year who will be able to speak to your strengths as a student in their classroom (even if it is virtual).
Related: When should I apply for college?
Focus on teachers that know you really well
One of the biggest mistakes that students make is only focusing on grades. Instead, think about the teachers who know you really well as a student. This is why it is so important to get to know your teachers inside and outside of class. A strong recommendation letter will not simply state that:
John was an A student and did well on his tests.
Instead, it will describe the type of scholar, thinker, researcher, and classmate you are. Remember, if your teachers write comments about you at the end of the semester or marking period, this can give you a glimpse of how they might talk about you.
Align your recommendation letters to your areas of academic interest
When college admissions officers are reading recommendations, they are imagining you as a student on their campus. Ideally, your recommendations should support your intended academic interest.
For example, say you are an intended English major, at least one of your recommendations should be from an English teacher. If you are an aspiring engineer, you should have a recommendation from a math or science teacher, and so on. Generally, you should be seeking recommendation letters from teachers in two separate academic disciplines. This advice is also true for students who are undecided on their major.
Ask your teachers by the end of junior year
Some teachers like to write recommendation letters over the summer, so it is a nice courtesy to ask them to write a recommendation letter before the summer starts. The other upside to this is that you will secure your recommendations early. Some teachers will have a “cap” on the number of recommendations they will write, so this will guarantee that you can secure recommendations from your top teachers.
If you are in a situation where a teacher can’t write you a recommendation, don’t get discouraged! Thank them and identify another teacher who might be able to write for you. If you are having trouble with this, your school counselor can be a good person to ask for advice.
Offer to provide additional information
A really smart move for you to consider is to offer to sit down with your teacher or guidance counselor for a conversation before they write the recommendation. Some teachers or guidance counselors may even ask you to complete a questionnaire or survey or send them a copy of your resume. Either way, it is important to be clear that you are available to give them additional information.
Also read: How to start a scholarship essay
Next steps after your recommendation request
Your work is not done after asking for your recommendations! There are still a few steps left!
Double-check to ensure that your recommendation is submitted
It’s always better to be safe than sorry. That’s why you should keep your eye on your status portals for scholarships or college admissions to ensure that your rec letters are submitted. If you are concerned that your recommendation has not been submitted, you can send your recommender a quick note to ask if they need anything else from you for the letter. This can be a good way to nudge your teacher or school counselor.
When in doubt, you can also call or email the admissions office to check in on the status of the recommendation letter.
Don’t forget to thank your recommendations
Recommendations are time consuming, hard work. Be sure to send a thank you to your recommendation writers (bonus points for writing a hand-written thank you card!).
Related: How to find roommates in college
Frequently asked questions about asking for a recommendation
Can I use the same recommendations for scholarships and admissions?
Generally yes! Unless the scholarship or admissions application is asking for a very specific type of recommendation, you can use your letters of recommendation interchangeably.
There are cases when specific scholarships and colleges will require a special recommendation form. In these situations, you should communicate any specific requirements to your teachers and counselors beforehand!
How many recommendations should I ask for?
Generally, we advise students to ask for three recommendations: two teacher recommendations from teachers in different academic subjects and one school counselor recommendation. Additional recommendations are generally not necessary.
Can I get a recommendation from a non-academic source?
We know that some students may want to ask for a recommendation from a coach, mentor, spiritual leader, or work supervisor. This is fine, but should be treated as something that is optional. The really important recommendations to secure are the aforementioned two teacher recommendations and school counselor recommendation.
What if the college website says that letters of recommendation are optional?
Some colleges might say that letters of recommendations are optional. In these situations, I always suggest that students submit one or two recommendations as they will still be considered as part of your application. Generally speaking, anything in the admissions process that is “optional” is still ideal to do. This also goes for optional essays and interviews.
What if I’m new to my school and don’t know who to ask for a recommendation?
If you are new to a school, you have a few options as far as recommendations. Option one is to simply ask a teacher at your old school for a recommendation letter. There is no rule against this and in my experience students who transferred schools regularly sent in recommendations from their previous high school. This can make sense if you are transferring as a senior and may not have time for your teachers to get to know you (especially if you are applying to college Early Decision or Early Action).
If you are transferring as a junior or sophomore, you will have plenty of time to get to know your new teachers. Just be patient and trust that you will be forging some wonderful new relationships with your new teachers and school counselor.
Can my family members or friends write a letter of recommendation for me?
Generally this is not advised as your family members and friends are a bit biased! Colleges will take these types of recommendations with a grain of salt. However, there are exceptions to this. For instance, Dartmouth College asks students to submit a peer recommendation from a friend or classmate. In this situation, the admissions office is explicitly asking for this type of recommendation, so it’s obviously okay.
Also read: When to apply for scholarships