Now is the time that juniors should be thinking about recommendation letters. As a former AP English teacher, I’ve written scores of these letters, and I can tell you lots of ways NOT to ask for one.
For example? In Naviance, a college planning tool used by many school systems, you
can designate which teacher you’d like to write you a recommendation. This triggers an
email from Naviance to the teacher that has the effect of saying, “Surprise! Suzy Student
expects you to write her a recommendation.”
Moral: Do not designate a teacher as a recommender in Naviance until he or she has agreed to write your recommendation.
5 rules for asking for letters of recommendation for college applications
For the sake of good manners, here are some simple rules your high school junior can follow to respectfully ask for letters of recommendation, either toward the end of this year or at the beginning of their senior year.
1. Think carefully about who would write you the best recommendation letters.
The teachers should know you well and in a positive light. This doesn’t mean you’re limited to teachers who have given you A’s; one who can attest to your curiosity, your work ethic, your perseverance, or your contributions to discussion will be a good teacher to ask. Rarely should the teacher be from 10th grade or earlier—unless you’ve had a continuing relationship.
For example, if you had Mr. Dewberry for 10th-grade tech ed and haven’t talked to him since, he’s not a good choice. But if Mr. Dewberry is your class sponsor and you’ve been an active class officer year after year, he would be fine. Colleges prefer to see recommendations from teachers of core courses—English, science, math, social studies. If you do ask your art teacher for a recommendation, there should be a good reason for doing so, such as planning to major in graphic design.
2. Politely ask two or three teachers via separate, individualized emails if they would be willing to write you a recommendation.
I used to insist that the first contact be in person, but covid has changed things. Any time you send an email, make sure that the tone is appropriately respectful, that it has all the relevant information, and that you have proofread for sentence structure, spelling, capitalization, and punctuation.
Sign it with your first and last name. (Now’s a good time to think about your email address: Handles like “Ih8school@aol” or “eatslugs@gmail” won’t look good to colleges or set the right tone for formal correspondence.)
I’ve received recommendation requests from students that contained no capitalization or
punctuation—just a run-on sentence that seemed to have been dashed off in seconds, like a text message dictated to a Siri in earmuffs.
I’d respond, “Would you like me to put as much care into this recommendation as you did into your request? I’m your ENGLISH teacher! This looks like I didn’t teach you anything.”
Even so, one student that got that sassy response did eventually get a positive recommendation from me; he got into the U.S. Naval Academy and now drives a white Corvette and flies planes for Navy.
The email should include a respectful form of address (Dear Ms. Dearing), your request for a recommendation, why you think this teacher would have good things to say about you, and an idea of when the recommendation needs to be submitted (“I’m applying Early Decision to Super U. and the deadline is November 15, but I hope to have everything in by October 30”). Ask them what they’d like to have from you, such as a résumé or essay. I always asked for an essay that included anecdotes about our interactions.
[My prompt: Why do you think that I would write you a good recommendation? Include at least one anecdote about our interactions. The more personality-revealing details you give me (things that aren’t on your transcript or résumé), the better my recommendation can be written. Words like “integrity,” “hard work,” and “perseverance” mean little without anecdotes to support them.]
3. Give the teacher at least two weeks to write the recommendation.
Teachers are busy and used to multitasking, but remember that, at least in public schools, they aren’t required or paid to write recommendations.
[Some students wait till the last minute on everything, including getting their college
applications done. Don’t contact a teacher and say that you need a recommendation
tomorrow! That teacher just might say, “Poor planning on your part does not constitute
an emergency on my part” and turn you down.]
4. You don’t get to see what the teacher has written, but if you selected wisely, you can assume it will focus on the positives.
Once you see that the letter has been uploaded, at the very least, write an email (following the suggestions in #3) thanking them for the recommendation. Later, when all your recommendations are in, write formal thank-you notes on real paper notecards and, if you wish, give a small gift, but gifts are not necessary or expected. Most teachers just want to know you appreciated the time and care they put into your recommendation.
[If you do give a little gift, make it personal. Students who noticed that I drank lots of
coffee gave me Starbucks cards or coffee mugs; a gift card to Barnes & Noble is a sure bet for an English teacher. Steer clear of chocolate unless you know it’s welcome—most
teachers are inundated with sweets.]
5. Tell your recommenders which schools accepted you and, when you’ve decided, which school you will attend in the fall.
They cared enough to write the letter for you; they care about where you will be once you’ve left the nest of high school.
Good luck, juniors. Keep in mind that you are asking the teacher for a favor, and act accordingly—with respect and gratitude.