At many schools, teacher recommendations form an important component of the college application package. Colleges want to get an idea of who you are as both a person and as a learner, and they recognize that teachers are uniquely suited to provide an assessment on both fronts. However, despite the importance of a strong teacher recommendation, some students have trouble navigating this essential step. How you ask your teachers for recommendations can have a significant impact on your application as a whole. Here are our steps for getting the most out of your teacher recommendations:
Ask Early! (Earlier than you’d think…)
If we could only offer once piece of advice, it would be to ASK EARLY for your college recommendations. And when we say early, we mean summer vacation or ideally even sooner. As you approach the spring of your junior year, you should have a solid idea of who you would like to write your recommendations. If you have a close relationship with that teacher, you may even want to mention the idea to them (without formally asking).
Keep in mind there are some logistical hurdles that vary school to school. At some schools (typically private schools, though this can vary), teachers are required to write recommendations for all students who ask. However, in other schools, recommendations are written on a first-come, first-served basis. We’ve seen it happen where teachers place a cap on the number of recommendations they are willing to write and any students who ask after the limit has been reached are unfortunately out of luck. Don’t let this happen to you! Plan ahead and ask early in order to be first in line. You’ll thank yourself later.
Be sure to check in with your counselor to learn the specifics of what you can expect from your teachers with regard to recommendations. However, at the end of the day, recognize that a relaxed and well supported teacher is in a better position to write a glowing recommendation than a teacher who is stressed and overwhelmed with students. Asking early will go far in making sure that your application is as strong as it can be.
Make Sure Your Teacher Knows You Well
This is one of the most important elements of requesting a recommendation from a teacher. You need to make sure that the teacher you ask to write a recommendation for you has known you for quite some time. ‘A long time’ is subjective, but we recommend at least a full year or ideally even longer.
For example, a language teacher who has seen you develop and maintain your dedication to a single subject for several years would be someone who could speak strongly to your level of grit and perseverance. Or, a coach who has watched you progress from the freshman team, to JV, on to Varsity could definitely speak to your character and personal growth over a period of several years.
In contrast, a teacher who has known you for a single semester or less might be less attuned to what makes you a great student. It’s definitely possible to make a strong impression in a short amount of time, but this is rare. Whenever possible, we advise seeking a recommendation from someone who has known you for at least a year.
Make Sure Your Teacher Will Say Positive Things
This seems like a no brainer but it’s always worth it to take a step back and think about the type of recommendation a teacher may be able to provide. If you often received disciplinary feedback from a particular teacher, it might be a better idea not to ask them to write a recommendation for you. Or, if you
However, there’s a flip side to this piece of advice. Let’s say that you got rough grades during first semester due to some personal issues, but then were able to improve as the class continued. If your teacher is able to speak to this development within you, then they could certainly be a worthwhile candidate to seek a recommendation from.
For the most part, be cautious. Choose teachers who you’ve had a strong, positive relationship with and who you know would be willing to write glowing reviews about your progress and development.
Provide a Resume, Transcript, and Instructions (and your main essay if you have it)
Teachers are amazing, we all know that. But they are also busy! Once you have a teacher who has agreed to write your recommendation, make the job as simple as possible for them. You must include a resume of your accomplishments. It’s okay if this is relatively short for now - just list the important things like which clubs or activities you participate in (if any) with leadership positions listed, any jobs or internships you’ve had, and any awards you’ve received. Even if you’ve told all of these things to your teacher verbally, it’s easy to forget (and with dozens of students to attend to, easy to get mixed up with others!). Keep things simple, give your teacher a resume.
Give your teacher a copy of your transcript. Unofficial is fine, but make sure they now all of your grades throughout your entire high school career. This will help give them a birds eye view of what type of student you’ve been, as well as who you have the potential to become. It’s also a good idea to remind your teacher what you intend to study, even if it’s something beyond their subject area. Err on the side of more information is better, so that the teacher can be more detailed and more positive.
Give your teacher instructions on how to submit to various schools. The application process has gotten a lot simpler with the help of the Common App. Nowadays, teachers will simply create an online login and then follow a link that you provide in order to submit their recommendations.
However, even with all that, it never hurts to give very clear, very simple instructions. Give your teacher the list of schools that they will be recommending you for, and then give a quick mention of what program and how best to submit the rec. It’s fine if you are submitting everything via the Common App, but communicating this extra step to your teacher will save them a lot of thinking (which frees up the brain to write more great things about you!).
Lastly, if you have a draft of your essay, go ahead and offer your teacher a copy. They may not accept it, or they may not have time to read it, and that’s okay. Still, offering the essay will help your teachers get inside your head and gain an idea of what type of person you are becoming. If your essay is not in solid shape (or doesn’t yet exist if you followed our instructions and asked early) that’s okay too. You can still have a conversation with your teacher that indicates where your thinking is and what your plans are.
Teacher recommendations are so valuable to the college application package. Make sure you get the most out of yours by following the instructions above.
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