How to Get Great Letters of Recommendation

A little relationship-building and personal legwork go a long way to move you forward on your college journey.

The teen brain is wired to care the most about other teenagers. And yet that instinct can be tricky, because a crucial part of your college process involves communication with adults. Your application package won’t be complete without insightful, supportive letters of recommendation. Here are some Dos and Don’ts of how to ask, who to ask, and what to ask in order to make the most of the required letters of recommendation. 

DO build strong relationships with your teachers, early 

Teachers are in this business because they care about you and they want to help you grow. So let teachers know both who you are and how you need to grow. Sure, speak to teachers when you’re struggling, but also let them know if you found one unit especially interesting. If you notice something in the news or around town that relates to class, snap a pic and share it. One of my favorite moments as an English teacher was when a student told me, “The 10th grade shouldn’t be reading Julius Caesar right now. Too many people trying to stab each other in the back!” Her joke gave us an opportunity to talk through some friendship struggles while also showing that she was paying attention in class. Win-Win.   

DON’T ask 10 teachers to write for you

Letters of recommendation are about quality over quantity. College admissions officers have thousands of pages of text to read every season, so they do not want to get bogged down in too many letters. Typically you will have one letter from your school counselor and two letters from teachers. If you have an especially compelling story outside of those folks — perhaps you’ve been a trained competitive dancer since age 3 or you’ve earned your Eagle Scout designation — it might make sense to add one additional letter. 

DO show different sides of your brain

When choosing teachers, think about the different parts of your high school experience to highlight. Generally, we recommend that you choose one STEM teacher (math, science, etc.) and one Humanities teacher (English, history, language, arts, etc.). Junior-year teachers are usually the best choices, since they know the most mature you. 

DON’T assume you have to ask a teacher who gave you an A

Often the most interesting relationship you have with a high school teacher comes from a class where you struggled. Colleges want to know you as a learner, so choose a teacher who has seen how your brain grapples with complexity. Letters that talk about growth are especially compelling, so if a teacher watched you face a challenge and push through, that letter might be powerful, even if you didn’t ultimately earn an A in the course. 

DO come prepared!

When you are ready to ask a teacher for a letter, let them know why you have selected them. Your college applications package is your way to let colleges see who you are, so what part of that can this letter help show? Was this teacher’s course one that led you to an interest in your major? Was it a course that showed you connections with your own life in new or surprising ways? Was this course one that proved to you how hard work pays off? Did this teacher help hone your communication skills in high-level class discussions? When you ask a teacher to write a letter, share these insights.

DO also help your teachers prepare

The typical high school teacher has dozens of students each day, so make it easy for them to remember you. Bring a copy of your resume, or write a quick email with some highlights from your academic career and your time specifically in the teacher’s class. Remind them of something you want to highlight in your application. This kind of information helps focus the letter-writing process. When teachers have 30 letters to write in the middle of summer, extra bits of insight helps your letter rise to the top! 

DON’T try to gain fake prestige

If your uncle’s wife’s brother’s college roommate is now an Oscar-winning movie director, don’t ask them for a letter. Often we think that if we have a connection to someone famous or powerful, having that signature at the bottom of a letter will open doors. Do not select letter writers based on their reputation or fame, but based on how well they know you. Colleges are looking for insight about you. Don’t miss the opportunity to share some. 

DON’T wait until the last minute

Sure, your college applications are not due until fall of senior year, but you should ask your teachers months before that. You should be asking teachers to write you letters in spring of your junior year. That way, teachers have time to write thoughtful letters which will serve you better in the end. 

DO write a thank you note

Teachers don’t mind writing letters. Teachers like to share the positive qualities of their delightful students. But writing you a letter is above and beyond the job description, so it is important to acknowledge that extra time and effort. When the letter is finished and sent to colleges, or after your applications are complete, or even after you’ve been accepted at your dream college — whatever the timing, make sure you say thank you.