Recommendation Letters for College: What Parents Need to Know

Senior year means a lot of stress for twelfth graders. These stressors revolve around the college application, of course, or applying to a gap year program, job, or internship. All of these options require at least two recommendations from teachers. One of the problems with this process, however, is that a teacher’s recommendation letter for college is based on your past performance and not your present status. Therefore, you have to start thinking about this as a junior.

The questions a high school teacher asks herself before she writes a letter of recommendation for college.

The tricky thing about this part of the application is that it depends on someone other than you, the student. This is not a place where you can brag about your awards or tell stories about your most daring feats of helpfulness in the face of a crisis. This is where the admissions officer gets to hear another point of view.

  • Are you the kid you profess to be?
  • Is there more to you than grades?
  • Do your teachers sing your singular praises or write generic descriptions of their classes because they don’t know what to say about you?
  • Is there mutual respect here, a relationship created through the give and take of class discussion and effort?
  • These questions will be answered through the language of a teacher’s recommendation, and that is why the letter is so important.

This is yet one more reason that your junior year is so important. Because getting your teacher to write a good recommendation letter doesn’t begin in the late spring of junior year or the early fall of senior year; it starts when you step into that teacher’s classroom in the fall of 11th grade.

When I am asked to write a recommendation, these are the questions I ask myself:

1. Did you make an impression on me in a positive way?

This could happen in various ways:

  1. You might have a strong personality, which came through in our class discussions.
  2. You might have asked important or delving questions that helped others understand the day’s issues more intensely.
  3. You might have asked me for help when you didn’t understand an issue.
  4. You might have helped your classmates when they didn’t understand something or asked a shy classmate to join your group throughout the year (being inclusive is something that often stands out in my memory).

2. Did you put in effort throughout the year? 

This means lots of things to a teacher:

  1. Did you do the work assigned?
  2. When you didn’t, were you honest about why?
  3. Did you participate in class?
  4. Did you ask for help?
  5. Did you come on time for class and help sessions?
  6. Did you earn a grade or expect a grade?

3. Most importantly, the question I ask is this: Do I know you as a person?

This sounds nebulous but means:

  1. Did you give me an honest impression of what is important to you?
  2. Did you talk to me about what you wanted to learn and push yourself to learn more about what is important to you?
  3. Did you delve deeply into topics, or only do exactly what I asked?
  4. Did you find a way to make an assignment yours by adding your voice when appropriate?
  5. Did you make an effort to make the class meaningful for you?

These are all difficult questions to answer. I don’t expect to be able to answer every one of them positively for every student. I will undoubtedly write recommendations for most who ask, but my best recommendations will be written for the students who stand out to me.

So, my advice to juniors is to create a strong bond with a few teachers. When you are ready to ask them for a recommendation letter for college, think about the impression you made on them, and ask them in person. No matter how strong our relationship is, respect is shown through eye-to-eye communication, not pressing a send button. I rarely say no to requests, but the better I know you, the better my letter will be, and the more your application will stand out.

This is the only part of your application when someone else speaks for you. Make sure the right person is doing the talking.

About Emily Genser

Emily Genser is a veteran high school teacher in West Hartford, CT and a mother of two. She spends her days with teens helping them navigate their lives while holding on to their laughter and hearts. She is exhausted, but smiling through the chaos.

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