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College 101

Who to Ask, When to Ask, and How to Ask for a Recommendation Letter
Article Type: Quick and Dirty

Different colleges require a different number of evaluations from teachers or other folks who know you. Here are a few different permutations we've seen before:

  • One Teacher Evaluation and one Secondary School Report (i.e., a recommendation from your school counselor)
  • Two Teacher Evaluations and one Secondary School Report
  • Two Teacher Evaluations from teachers of core academic subjects(math, science, English, social studies) who taught you during, 10th, 11th, or12 grade, one Secondary School Report, and one optional additional evaluation from another teacher, coach, activity leader, or boss
  • One Teacher Evaluation, one Coach testimonial, 75 cents, a bent nail, and a photo of you standing in a pear tree in front of a full moon. This one isn’t actually true and be careful because the 75 cents may be interpreted as a bribe.

As you can see, some schools are really particular about exactly what type of letter of recommendations they want. Others are more flexible. Make sure to read up on the schools you're applying to so you can make sure to hit their requirements.

Once you know what sorts of teachers you can pick from, it's time to get a little bit strategic. Should you choose that one teacher who gave you a C — or even an A — in basket weaving back in the 9th grade? Probably not.

Who to Ask

First let’s start with who not to ask.

  • Friends
  • Family members
  • Your cheerleading coach (unless he or she is also your math,French, or other major academics teacher)
  • The clerk at 7-11 who clued you into how to make Red Bull kiddy cocktails
  • The girl you’ve been stalking since 8th grade. (Yes, tenacity and doggedness are hallmarks of a successful college student but…)

These are the questions you need to ask yourself before asking a teacher to write you a rec:

1.     When did they teach you? You've probably changed a little bit since your dweeby, hairless, brace-faced freshman year. And college admission officers expect that. How well you did in a 9th grade class doesn't necessarily say a whole lot about how well you'll do as a college frosh.

So it's best to pick a teacher who taught you in 11th grade. Why 11th? Because you haven't been with your 12th grade teachers for very long yet, and 10th grade is already pretty far in the past. So 11th grade really hits the sweet spot. That said, if the same teacher taught you during two years in school (say, 10th and 12th grades), that teacher could be a great alternative option.

2.     What subject did they teach you? Overall, it's best to pick a teacher who taught you in a core academic subject. You know: math, science, English, social studies, foreign language. Make sure to check the requirements of the school you're applying to, because some require one recommendation from a math/science teacher and one from a humanities teacher.

Admission officers are using the evaluation to get a sense of how well you do in school in general, and these subjects tend to be viewed as the most "rigorous." If you are allowed more than one teacher evaluation, then you might consider your brilliant chorus teacher or your awesome track coach.

"Yup, running as fast as we can to the finish line."


3.     What grade did you earn in their class? You might think you should try going for a teacher who gave you an A, or a teacher who taught you an AP, IB, or honors class (if advanced-level classes are available at your school.) However, if you didn't have a personal relationship with that teacher, you're better off asking a teacher who knows you better, even if you didn't do your best in his or her class.

4.     How well do they know you? It’s a good idea to choose a teacher who really knows and has worked closely with you; someone who has seen you grow and change (for the better, that is) Often the best recommendations are those that describe how a student has improved over time. (“Ari’s penmanship finally became legible in 10th grade and he almost always stays awake now.”)

5.     How long have they been teaching? Teacher evaluation forms often ask teachers some basic questions about themselves, including what classes they teach and how long they've been teaching.

A teacher who's been in the classroom for 25 years and calls you one of the five best students of her entire career will carry a lot more weight with admission officers than another teacher who has only taught for two years but also speaks glowingly about you. Still, it's more important that the teacher really supports you than that they've had a long career.

When to Ask for a Recommendation

When not to ask a teacher for a letter of rec:

·      When she’s passing back your pop quizzes (for which you received a 65).

·      At any time at his house. This is stalking.

·      Last day of school.

·      The first time you meet her.

Teachers want their students to succeed. It really is a two-way street (or, actually, a one-way street in which there are two lanes going the same direction splitting the gas). As you probably know from writing essays throughout high school, it takes time to write heartbreaking works of staggering beauty. If you want your teachers to write a good (and heartbreaking) recommendation for you, make sure to give them that ample time to write. We recommend asking them during the second half of junior year. This gives you time to exchange information with them and also gives them more time to polish their letters.

Asking for a Recommendation

It can be really hard to ask favors of people, especially if they're intimidating authority figures. Luckily for you, most teachers actually enjoy writing letters of rec for their students. Here's why:

·      Teachers like to see their students succeed. If anyone values education, you can hopefully bet on a teacher, and they want to help their students further their educations by going to college.

·      If you choose teachers who know you and respect you, they will want to help you out as an individual.

·      It’s part of their job description. Most likely, they’re really experienced with the art of the teacher evaluation. They write recommendations for college-bound seniors every single year and know the drill. They're fully expecting students to ask them to write evaluations. Hopefully they don’t write the same thing for everyone, just substituting names and particulars. Make sure you choose a teacher whom you know likes you (no, not likes-you-likes-you — ewww) and admires your work. And make sure to send them your brag sheet.

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