Recommendations for Getting Recommendations

When I receive a request for a recommendation, the first thing I do is to think about the student who is asking for it. What are this student’s strengths? Can I give specific examples of how the student demonstrated these strengths? How did this student do in my class in terms of grades and effort? What might this student contribute to the school or program he or she is applying to?

As you might gather from these questions, writing letters of recommendation can be a complex task. Here are some tips to help you get the best possible recommendations from your teachers.

Decide Which Teachers You Should Ask. Recommendations for college serve several purposes. Besides giving the reader a sense of you as a person, they also help supply some specific information on your academic strengths and abilities. When deciding which teachers to ask for recommendations, don’t just think about the grades you received. Instead, you should consider the amount of effort you put into your classes and the sort of interactions you had with your teachers. For instance, if you received an “A” in a history class but you never spoke up or talked with your history instructor, he or she may not be able to give a lot of detail about your strengths as a student.

Ask Early. Depending on the time of year, teachers can get dozens of requests for recommendations. It is in everyone’s best interest if you put in your requests early. For college recommendations, now until the end of May is the perfect time for juniors to touch base with their teachers and put in their requests.

Prepare Pertinent Information. While you don’t want to overload your recommenders, some basic information can be helpful when they are crafting the letter. At the very least, you should offer to provide an up-to-date copy of your resume as well as a copy of a paper or test that you feel offers an accurate snapshot of your work in the class. If you felt like you improved a great deal or that you learned something particularly valuable, you might want to write a paragraph reflecting on the experience. For recommendations related to a specific program or internship, you should also provide information on the program. This will allow your recommender to review the program’s specifications and to speak to your strengths in relation to these details.

Bill, a former student I had several years ago, recently asked me to write a recommendation for an internship. As part of his email to me, he mentioned how the class he had with me had prepared him for this particular internship and how the experience made him feel capable of teaching for the first time. This comment helped remind me of Bill’s performance in the class and gave me more information to include in his recommendation.

Choose the Right Time and Place. Asking your teacher to write you a recommendation as you are running out the door to your next class and he or she is frantically preparing to teach next period is not an ideal situation. Instead, you should visit your teachers before or after school or during their office hours and ask them if they would be able to write a recommendation for you. Besides giving them time to process your request, approaching them when they aren’t surrounded by other students can also allow for your teachers to tell you about their preferred procedures when it comes to writing recommendations (some teachers have very specific protocols they want students to follow) or to voice any concerns or questions they might have. 

Waive Your Right to Review. I am always surprised by the number of students I get who choose not to waive their right to review the recommendation. This choice raises several flags. Besides potentially carrying less weight with the admissions committee, not waiving the right signals to me (perhaps incorrectly) that the student doesn’t trust me to write the best and most honest recommendation possible. If you are really concerned with what a teacher is going to say about you, perhaps you shouldn’t ask that teacher for a recommendation.

Offer a Follow-Up Meeting. While the resume and other documents are helpful to refer to when writing a recommendation, a follow-up meeting can be even more valuable. It gives you the opportunity to elaborate on details that aren’t included in the resume, and it allows the recommender to ask any clarifying questions he or she may have after reviewing your documents. I recently met with Jenny, a student who was hoping to get into a program that serves inner-city high school students. While I know Jenny fairly well, this meeting helped me gain a better understanding of her interest in this particular program and allowed me to see (and share) her enthusiasm for working with these students. Rather than just writing about Jenny’s academic achievements in the classroom, I was also able to include why I thought Jenny would be a strong candidate.

Remember to Say “Thank You.” When you’ve received your application decisions, be certain to send your recommenders a note that thanks them for their help and gives them some idea of the outcomes and your future plans. Teachers get almost as excited as you do when it comes to acceptance letters.

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