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Getting Great Letters of Recommendation for College: A Student’s Guide

Getting great letters of recommendation for college can make all the difference in increasing your chances of being accepted by your school of choice. An effective letter is one that’s written by a teacher who is well qualified to vouch for you, and one that presents you in the best possible light.

Follow this guide to land the kind of letter of recommendation that you really want:

1. Choose the Teacher

Decide who you should ask to write your letters of recommendation. Each teacher you select should add something new about you to your application, including knowing you from a perspective that’s different from other teachers. The teacher you choose should be able to speak about your intellectual curiosity and how you learn, and perhaps what you do when things become difficult. Choose teachers who will have good things to say about you – teachers for whom you did your best work or who saw you at moments of transformation or other types of achievement. Letters should help the person reading your application to distinguish you from other applicants.

Avoid asking teachers who don’t know you all that well. Even if they’ve written great letters for other students, any letter they write for you is likely to sound impersonal and lack the specific knowledge about you that makes a letter stand out to admissions officers.

TIP: It is not always best to choose the teacher for the class where you received your best grade. Sometimes the teacher who writes about your perseverance, your ability to work hard and your individuality will be able to create a more effective letter.

2. Ask the Teacher

Meet with the teacher and ask if he or she would be comfortable writing a letter of recommendation for college admission for you. If you sense the slightest hesitancy, ask a different teacher.

It’s wise to get started asking nice and early. Some teachers put a limit on the number of letters that they will write in a given year, and even those who don’t can get swamped with requests if you wait too long. If your request is in a big pile that they are wading through, you may not get their best letter.

TIP: Ask in person – don’t email! It’s always best to ask in person.

3. Write a Note

Once you know who will be writing your recommendation letters, you should write a short paragraph in your own words thanking the teacher for agreeing to write a letter for you. Also include all the information they need about the colleges you’re applying to, and their deadlines.

TIP: Here’s a sample note that you can use as a template:


Sample Note to a Teacher

Dear Excellent Teacher,

Thank you for writing a letter of recommendation for college on my behalf. I realize that your time is valuable, and I cannot thank you enough for taking time to write about me.

I am applying to X# of colleges and universities.


The following schools use the Common Application:

(List your schools using the following examples.)

School                                    I Am Applying                       Due Date

Wonderful College                  Early Decision                         11/1/20

Incredible University               Early Action                             11/15/20

Fabulous University                Regular Decision                     1/1/21


The following schools use their own application:

(List your schools using the following examples.)

School                                    I Am Applying                        Due Date

Amazing University                 Early Action                             11/15/20

Terrific College                        Rolling                                      ASAP


The following schools use the Coalition Application:

(List your schools using the following examples.)

School                                     I Am Applying                       Due Date

Amazing University                 Early Action                             11/1/20

Awesome University               Early Action                             11/15/20

Cool University                       Regular Decision                     1/1/21


In this space you need to tell the teacher why you have asked him or her to write your recommendation letter. What did you most enjoy about the class? What topic, concept or unit was most difficult for you and how did the teacher help you master it? Add any thoughts that will help your teacher write an effective letter of recommendation. You want him or her to know about you as a student, as a constructive and cooperative class participant, and as a person eager to learn.


Your Enthusiastic Student

(Put your email address and telephone or cell phone number here. The teacher may have a question while writing your recommendation and should be able to contact you easily.)


4. Consider Adding a One-Page Resume

You may want to consider attaching a one-page resume documenting your activities both in school and outside of school, your leadership abilities and your hobbies. The purpose of adding a resume is to make your teacher’s job easier by refreshing their memory with details of your accomplishments. Also, use the resume to make sure your teachers know how you spend your free time.

5. Comply with Your School’s Requirements and Deadlines

If your high school has specific requirements and guidelines for letters of recommendation for college, make sure you understand how to do this and comply with everything they ask for. For example, it’s common for schools to require students to enter information in an online platform.

Tip: Be aware of college deadlines and give teachers plenty of time to write the letters. This is another reason why it’s very important to get started early and give teachers as much time as possible. An unnecessary late request may annoy the teacher, may not give him or her sufficient time to devote to your letter and may label you as a procrastinator.

6. If You Need to Add Additional Colleges

If you add additional colleges to your list, contact your college counselor and your teachers immediately. Let them know which colleges you are adding, the deadlines and the type of admission plan you will be applying under.

7. How Many Letters of Recommendation for College Do You Need?

Quality is far more important than quantity. Two to three excellent letters that tell a compelling story about you are worth far more than a stack of “form letters”. Pay close attention to any instructions that the college gives. Do they want one letter from a core subject teacher or two letters? Will the school accept additional letters? Those guidelines will give you a good idea of what they’re looking for, and how many letters you should seek.


Extra Tips That Can Really Reward You for the Effort

  • Waive your right to read your letters of recommendation. This is important because it signals to the admissions officer that you are confident in what your recommenders will say about you, and that adds another level of credibility to the letters.
  • Teachers now routinely submit letters of recommendation online for many colleges, but if they have to mail one it’s courteous to provide the teacher with a stamped addressed envelope. This also streamlines the process for them.
  • Follow up with college admissions two weeks prior to the deadline to ensure they have received everything that they need, including each of the letters of recommendation you have sought.


What to Do If You Discover That Your Recommender Never Sent Their Letter

This really is the nightmare scenario, isn’t it? But do NOT panic. The college or university may not have entered receiving your letters in its system yet.

If that’s not the case, contact the college admissions office immediately and explain the situation. If you can truthfully tell them that it was out of your control, you may find them willing to forgive the omission and grant you an extension. If they do, you should thank them and act quickly to avoid any further delay.

Assuming that the teacher had been very happy to write the letter for you, reach out to them and find out what went wrong; there may be a reasonable explanation. Whatever the case, do not be rude or emotional. This is an opportunity to show them how you can handle a difficult situation. Tell them the new deadline and ask if there’s anything more you need to provide to make the process easier for them.

If you find the teacher being uncooperative at all, or you get the sense that they are well meaning but just not reliable, you should move quickly to ask another teacher. This may be difficult on such short notice, but if you explain your situation (without criticizing the teacher who let you down), you may find a new recommender who is sympathetic and really motivated to help you. Clearly communicate the new deadline to them, and offer whatever help they need.


Do You Still Have a Question?

I’ve tried to answer most of the frequently asked questions about seeking a letter of recommendation for college admission. There are always exceptional circumstances, however, and if you find yourself still wondering about how to handle some part of the process, I’d be happy to hear from you. You can always use my contact page to send me a private note, but if you ask your question in the comments section below then the answer may help someone else as well.

I’d also love to hear from you if this guide has been of help. I do wish you all the very best in getting great letters of recommendation that you can include with your college applications, and that you are successful in being accepted to the colleges on your list.


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