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Six Steps to Great Teacher Recommendations

Many students wonder how much teacher recommendations really matter in the college admissions process. After all, teacher recommendation letters are the one part of a college application that students have no control over, and that lack of control can be scary.

First, some reassurance: While teacher recommendation letters most certainly do matter, few teachers will submit negative information about an applicant. If a teacher doesn’t have nice things to say about a student, he usually won’t agree to write the recommendation letter in the first place.

That said, since admissions officers take these letters into consideration, it’s worth putting forth the effort to garner some excellent recommendations.

Step One: Establish Relationships

Don’t be the passive student who sits in the back of class. Ask questions, speak with the teacher before or after class, attend after school help sessions whenever necessary, and show your teachers that you care about their subject area and the things they have to teach you. Teachers value those students who put in the time and effort to do well, and who demonstrate intellectual curiosity and a desire to learn. (Oh, and bringing cookies never hurts.)

Step Two: Follow Directions

Both your college and your high school will have detailed instructions for recommendations. Some high schools allow teachers to mail recommendation letters directly to colleges, others require teachers to submit recommendations to the counselor’s office first, and others have specific forms that must accompany recommendations. Find out what your school’s rules are and follow them. The same goes for colleges: Be sure to gather any required forms, pay attention to deadlines, and submit the correct number of recommendation letters. Don’t submit more than the college asks for – the admissions officers already have tens of thousands of documents to read and don’t generally appreciate extra reading material. And if you’re using the Common App, pay attention to the changes rolling out this year! We have a free on-demand webinar about these changes if you need more info.

Step Three: Compile a Personal File

You’ll be asking teachers who know you well to write these letters of recommendation, but the more information you provide them, the more detailed and personalized the recommendations can be. This is where a personal file comes in. Your file should include: Your resume, your admissions essays (if you’ve finished them), a statement of purpose (about 2 paragraphs explaining your future goals/plans), a list of colleges to which you are applying (including addresses and application deadlines), any forms the teacher needs to submit with the recommendations, stamped and addressed envelopes for each college, your contact information, and a brief note of thanks. Each teacher should get his or her own copy of this file.

Step Four: Choose Wisely

It’s time to decide which teachers you will ask to write letters of recommendation. First and foremost, choose a teacher who knows you well. For this reason, junior year teachers tend to be the best options because they have taught you for a full year, but students often develop strong relationships with senior year teachers as well. Avoid 9th or 10th grade teachers as colleges are seeking recommendations from people who know what you’re currently capable of, not what you were capable of two years ago. You’ll want to include at least one recommendation from a core subject teacher (English, math, science, or social studies), and if you’re planning a specific major, you may want to include a recommendation from a teacher in that discipline. Finally, remember that the teacher who helped you bring your grades up and overcome academic struggles might well give you a stronger recommendation than the teacher whose class you breezed through. Your grades in that teacher’s class don’t necessarily reflect the teacher’s opinion of you as a student and as a person.

Step Five: Time Your Request Well

Teachers are busy people, and they get inundated with requests for recommendation letters. Do not wait until the last minute to request a recommendation – in fact, ask as far in advance as possible. Don’t ask for a recommendation right before or after finals or midterms – they’ll be busy. And don’t ask right before a vacation – teachers don’t like working during vacation any more than students do.

Step Six: For Your Eyes Only

You have the right to see your recommendation letters. We recommend that you waive that right. Colleges value candid recommendation letters, so a letter that is for their eyes only will usually carry a little more weight. Besides, if you completed steps one through five, you should already know that your teachers will write glowing recommendations for you.


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