Four Tips For Getting Strong Teacher Recommendations

student with laptop

Students should be aware of the best way to ask teachers during this time.

When teachers receive a student request for a college recommendation, they first consider some questions. 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 their college or program of interest?

As you might gather from these questions, writing letters of recommendation can be a complex task. If you apply through the Common Application, teachers will be asked to fill out this form, which includes both ratings on specific attributes and a free-form text commentary. 

Here are some tips to help you get the best possible recommendations from your teachers.

    1. Decide which teachers you should ask. The primary purpose of the teacher recommendation is to provide specific information of you as a student–it will focus on your academic strengths, attitude, and potential. When deciding which two academic 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 and peers. For instance, if you received an A in a history class but you never spoke up or talked with your history instructor, the teacher may not be able to give much detail about your strengths as a student. If you progressed from a B to an A in history by organizing a study group and checking in with your teacher about essay drafts before finalizing them, your teacher will have a lot more to say about your effort and perseverance as both a student and classmate.

    Ask the two academic teachers who can provide the most positive comments about your contributions and strengths. You may hear that it is best to get one recommendation from English, social studies or language, and another from math or science because it gives colleges a sense of your more technical side as well as your writing and critical thinking abilities. If you are applying to engineering or science, it is important to have one of your recommendations come from a math or science teacher. However, if your interests lie elsewhere, choose the two teachers who will be most complimentary of you regardless of academic subject. Please reach out to us to discuss the pros and cons of your options.

2. Ask early and politely. Depending on the time of year, teachers may get dozens of requests for recommendations, and some limit the number they will write. It is in everyone’s best interest if you make your requests early. For college recommendations, the month of May is the perfect time for juniors to touch base with their teachers and put in their requests, but remember to follow school guidelines. 

Requests are ideally made face-to-face, but the current COVID-19 situation makes that difficult. If you have not communicated with your teacher since remote learning went into effect, you may want to engage with your teachers before you request a recommendation. This could be through active participation in chats, Zoom sessions or in posting comments for assignments. If you have questions about course material, email the teacher. 

When ready to ask, consider how you usually communicate important information with teachers, whether through email, your school systems, or even if you Zoom one-on-one, and use that format to ask them if they feel they could write a strong recommendation to support your college application. Remember the power of “please” and “thank you.” Do not assume they will say yes, and give them room to decline gracefully if necessary. Most teachers really want to do what is best for their students. This may include gently informing the student that perhaps they should look elsewhere when seeking a recommendation. Teachers might decline the request for any number of reasons, such as a lack of time or feeling that they don’t know the student well enough to write a strong reference. While turning down this request can be an awkward conversation for any teacher to have with a student, it is motivated with the student’s best interest at heart.  

3. Prepare pertinent information once the teacher agrees to write the recommendation. While you don’t want to overload your recommenders, some basic information can be helpful when they are crafting their recommendation. At the very least, you should email them an up-to-date copy of your resume or activities list, 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 feel like you improved a great deal or that you learned something particularly valuable, you might want to write a paragraph reflecting on the experience. Many teachers will provide you with a form asking questions related to your role in their class and to outline your contributions. Answer these questions thoughtfully, have another person review your responses, and complete them by the deadline that the teacher gives you.

Student reading a book

Teachers writing recommendations consider a student’s effort and engagement more than just high grades.

4. Follow up.

a. Offer a follow-up meeting. While the activities list 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 recommenders to ask any clarifying questions they may have after reviewing your documents. If you attend a large high school you should also respect that your teacher may not have time for such meetings, so make sure that the information you share with them is as comprehensive as possible. If virtual meetings are not an option, send a follow-up email to ask if the teacher needs additional information.

b. Keep your teacher updated about your application plans. Most teachers aim to write recommendations over the summer, but they inevitably spill into fall. If you have a particularly early fall application deadline, it’s OK to gently check in and share that information with your recommenders, so they can prioritize their writing.

c. Remember to say “thank you!” After you receive admission decisions, remember to thank your teachers for their roles in supporting you. They also enjoy hearing about your plans, so share your good news with them.

Please reach out to your consultant to discuss any questions regarding your recommendations.

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