Recommendation Letters

Getting the Best College Recommendation Letters

Recommendation letters are a super important part of your college application. We're here to answer all your questions and make sure you get them right.

Your college application is mostly you explaining to a college that you're amazing, and they would be lucky to have you. Recommendation letters are an opportunity for someone other than you to tell the college how great you are.

So, basically, they're backing you up, which means these letters are really important. You don't want to be making yourself sound like the next Einstein, but have your recommender be like "I mean, I guess this person is cool."

You want them to be like "YES, this is the smartest, kindest, most generous, most creative, best-looking person I've ever had the great honor of teaching. If you reject them, you will regret it for the rest of your life."

So, let's take a look at how we can make that happen.

1. Number of recommenders

You usually need between 1-2 teacher recommendations and 1 counselor recommendation. But, you should check the requirements for your school. Do that by Googling [name of college] application requirements. Go to the page with the college's name in it and .edu, and check how many recommenders you need - do this early!

2. Who you should ask

For at least one of your letters, choose a teacher who likes you and will write you a strong letter. To do this, the teacher needs to be someone who knows you well, both academically and as a person. This might be someone who has seen your strengths and knows that you're a great student. Or it might be someone who has pushed you, seen you struggle, and watched you work hard in the face of challenges.

Your second letter can be from another teacher or it can be from a coach, mentor, internship supervisor, or basically any adult (not a relative) who knows you well enough to speak to your strengths as a person.

3. The counselor recommendation

Most private colleges require a counselor recommendation. There's a pretty high chance you've talked to your counselor *maybe* once up to this point, but don't worry.

One good way of making sure they write a good letter is to ask them if they want you to help with an outline, like "Mrs. Williams, I know you're really busy with recommendation letters, so would it be helpful for me to put together an outline of my academic and extracurricular activities for you?"

If your counselor says yes or if they have a form they want you to fill out, this is an opportunity for you to basically help them write a recommendation. If they say no, don't worry too much, they likely already have an idea of a letter they're going to write.

4. When to ask for the letter

Give your teachers and counselors at least one month's notice before the due date, so he/she has enough time to write the letter. If you can, let them know as soon as you start working on your applications - they might get lots of requests, so get yours in early!

5. How to ask for a letter

This is super important! You should ask in person if you can, but if COVID-19 is preventing you from doing so, write an email to your teacher. Here's an email template for requesting a recommendation letter -

Hi Mrs./Ms./Mr. [ ],

I hope this finds you well! [if you're no longer taking their class] I really miss taking your class and learning from you. [if you're still taking their class] I really enjoyed class yesterday - [this week's topic] is really interesting.

I wanted to reach out because I'm starting the college application process, and taking your class has been such an important part of my growth in high-school. Would you be willing to write me a letter of recommendation for my application?

I would be more than happy to meet with you to talk about the letter and/or provide an outline of my academic/extracurricular experiences to help you with the letter.

Please let me know if you have any questions!

Thank you,

[Your name]

6. Recommendation outline

If you do send an outline to your teacher/counselor for their recommendation, here are the things you can include (if it's your counselor, then no need to specify these to one specific class) -

  • Describe a project or assignment you performed well on in their class

  • Describe three of your strengths and examples from their class

  • Describe an area you're still improving on and how you did so in their class

  • Describe any awards you've received inside/outside of school

  • Describe a time you showed leadership skills in their class - maybe on a group project or in a class discussion

  • The major you're interested in studying in college (especially if it's related to their class) and why

  • The job you want in the future (especially if it's related to their class) and why

  • [for counselor only] Any jobs, extracurriculars - highlight your strengths and what you learned from them

  • [for counselor only] The activity that's been most meaningful for you and why

  • [for counselor only] Any other information about your background/past, family situation, biggest challenges/accomplishments, or goals.

Take this outline seriously and fill it out carefully. Remember, these letters are an outside perspective on why you're a great candidate for the college - you need them to be strong.

7. Reading your teacher's letter

The college application you're filling out will ask you if you want to "waive your rights" to read your recommendation letters. ALWAYS CHOOSE YES. This means that you agree to not read your letter, which shows the college that your recommender is being honest, and there's nothing fishy going on.

8. How teachers submit their letters

The college application you're filling out will have a spot for you to enter in your recommenders' emails - ask your teacher/counselor what email is best for you to use to ensure they get the request. After you enter their emails, check-in with them a couple of days later to make sure they got the request.

Check the admission requirements to make sure you know when the teacher recommendation letters are due. Sometimes they're due at the same time as your application, sometimes they're due later. Either way, know the due date, and send your teacher a reminder if they haven't submitted within 2-3 days of the deadline. Here's a reminder email template -

Hi Mrs./Ms./Mr. [ ],

I hope this email finds you well! I know you must be really busy right now, so I wanted to thank you again for agreeing to write my college recommendation letter.

Just wanted to send a quick reminder that it's due at [time] on [date]. Let me know if you need anything else from me!

Thank you again,

[Your name]

That's it! You should also remember to thank your teachers/counselors after they write your letters. It's something for them to be proud of, too, if you get into college!