This is a critical time of year for juniors to consider which teachers they should ask for teacher recommendations, which are a critical part of a college or scholarship application. We have compiled advice here to ensure how you can get the best possible recommendations.
First, it is important to understand what the teacher rec is and how it helps your application. It is an opportunity for someone else to validate your academic achievement, future potential and accomplishments, credibly presenting you as the dynamic and colorful person you are. It offers insights into your personality and character, and testifies to your social and leadership abilities.
Your teachers will expand upon:
+ Superior academic achievement;
+ Extracurricular activity involvement;
+ Outstanding personal qualities;
+ Participation in and dedication to a particular field;
+ Their confidence in the your abilities.
Your schools want to know:
+ How you interact with your peers and classmates;
+ How well you prepare for your classes;
+ The level of your engagement in the classroom;
+ Your contribution to life on campus;
+ Your dedication to certain activities.
The bottom line is that a teacher rec helps schools decide whether you will be a successful student and contributor — in your own unique way — in their communities. If your impact will be academic, will you be innovative researcher? If your impact will be social, will you be a compelling student leader? Etc.
Who should write your recommendation?
Aside from obvious criteria (teacher, counselor), deciding who to ask for your recommendation should revolve around a basic question: Who knows you well?
You should also consider the following:
Who has seen you up close and in a variety of situations? i.e. academic, leadership, volunteer, etc. And who has seen you grow and change or otherwise improve over time? Teachers who have multiple responsibilities, such as your English teacher who also oversees the school newspaper you work on, are great choices.
What subject/s did they teach you? Teachers in core classes, or those seen as most rigorous, are received well by college admissions. Accordingly, consider what grades or relevant verbal feedback they gave you. If you hit it off well with a teacher in a subject relevant to your academic goals, that’s a plus!
When did they teach you? We recommend that Junior year teachers write your recommendation because you haven’t yet been with your senior year teachers for very long, and sophomore year is relatively far behind you. That being said, if you have a teacher who taught you in both the tenth and twelfth grade, for example, they would provide an excellent alternative.
Just remember, you want the strongest recommendation possible from a teacher who will be able to add dimension to your application. Ask someone who won’t write a vague recommendation that could apply to anyone and can prove your value to your prospective college by using specific stories and descriptions.
How to ask for a teacher recommendation
Teachers will write great recommendations for great students. Once you have identified who you will ask, be sure to participate in class and show up to their office hours. A little extra effort in these two areas really catches the attention of your teacher and can mean a world of difference between a mediocre and an excellent recommendation.
Asking for a teacher recommendation should look like this (each section will be dealt with in more detail throughout the rest of the article):
1 — Ask in advance
2 — Make your request (in person)
3 — Provide extra information
4 — Follow up
5 — Say thank you
1 — When should you ask?
Ask in advance. We suggest asking toward the end of your Junior year, in May for example. Why? Forward-thinking teachers write their recommendations over the summer, and asking in May gives them plenty of time to tailor their letter to your needs effectively.
Also keep in mind that some teachers put a cap on how many recommendations they write each year; if you are closer with or have your eye on a particular teacher, it’s better safe than sorry to politely ask them well ahead of time if they would be willing to later write you a teacher recommendation for your college applications.
2 — How should you make your request?
Several guidelines on the most important part of this process:
1. Make your request in person (but not during class). If it would be more appropriate then dropping by or asking after class, you might need to email the teacher to set up a meeting or to ask when it would be convenient to drop by.
2. Outline or write out what you will say beforehand. Think of it like a 3-4 sentence elevator pitch in simple and direct language. Clearly state what you are asking for, then briefly summarize why you are asking that particular person.
3. Follow-up with an email (see #3). Or, if the teacher seems vague or says “I think another teacher would write a stronger recommendation than I could,” consider yourself lucky! Trust us, you would rather try again than have a teacher submit a weak recommendation. If your request is taken without reservation (woohoo!), then be sure to say thank you and that you will follow-up with the teacher regarding timeline, details and requirements, etc.
3 — How and what extra information should you provide?
Before beginning the teacher recommendation request process, you should take time to prepare the following:
The “Recommendation Request” AKA “Brag Sheet” AKA “Student Information Form”
Some school guidance offices distribute a version of this self-evaluation form, along with a parent questionnaire, to their students. You may also download the Competitive Edge version here. Its main purpose is to help students organize ahead of time what teachers want and need to know in order to write a quality recommendation. You should paraphrase the information in the sheet in a personal email to your teacher. Include the following information:
- When the recommendation is due;
- How the recommendation is to be submitted. For specific information about submitting recommendations for the Common App, visit their website. Each university may do it a bit differently. Make sure to provide whatever supplies the teachers need (envelopes, stamps, etc.) if the recommendations are not submitted digitally.
What college or scholarship the recommendation is for with a brief summary of the institution or awarding entity (basically anything that gives context to who will be scoring the letter with your application).
Remember to use vivid verbs and adjectives and specific examples when filling out your Recommendation Request. Your teacher will likely pick up on these and use them in your letter (I am dynamic….take initiative…etc.). In fact, if not deemed impertinent, you might want to go ahead and bold the relevant terms or create a list of positive descriptors to accompany the Request.
The Interaction Sheet is a form in which the student traditionally recounts interactions from their time in the teacher’s class in order to help the teacher remember the student’s specific qualities, achievements, and anecdotes about them. The Competitive Edge Recommendation Request prompts this type of information. You might also want to include assignment examples, such as a copy of the best project or paper you completed for the teacher’s class.
Alternatively or in addition, provide your recommender with your activities resume and a personal statement or relevant essays you have previously written.
4 — How and when should you follow up?
Politely follow up 1-2 weeks before deadlines to ascertain whether your recommenders have any questions or need anything more from you. Always be sure to say thank you again. A good way to liaise with individuals in such situations should follow something like this:
Thank them again for providing you with a letter of recommendation;
Express your excitement about your future plans;
Invite them to contact you if they need any more information.
Letters of recommendation are usually expected to remain confidential (in fact, you will sign a waiver thru the Common App Portal called the FERPA Waiver—disallowing you to see your recommendations), but in some rare cases, some recommenders may ask for you to look over the letter and offers feedback before submitting. Consider that a golden opportunity!
5 — Say Thank You.
Once everything is submitted and received by the colleges, hand-write and deliver a thank you note to the recommender. It’s also a good idea to keep them updated on how your application goes!