Recommendation Letters for College: What Parents Need to Know

Senior year means a lot of stress for twelfth graders. These stressors all revolve around the college application, of course, or the application to a gap year program, or for a 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 really 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 tough thing about this part of the application lies in the fact that it is dependent upon 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 quite what to say about you?
  • Is there a 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 you a good recommendation letter doesn’t begin in the late spring of Junior year or the early fall of senior year. It begins the moment 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 to understand more deeply the issues of the day.
  3. You might have come to me for help when you didn’t understand an issue.
  4. You might have provided help to 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 the 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 certainly 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 kind of impression you made on them, and make sure to ask them in person. No matter how strong our relationship, respect is shown through eye-to-eye communication, not through the pressing of a send button. I very 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.

Emily GenserEmily Genser is the mother of Abigail (5) and Josh (2 1/2) and a high school English teacher in West Hartford, Connecticut. She is passionate about both jobs and spends most of her time laughing. You can find her blogging away her few free moments of the day at Exhausted but Smiling.

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