Your Guide to Securing Stellar Letters of Recommendation

Letters of recommendation are an important piece of your application puzzle. They shed light on your academic performance, character, and what kind of student you are (and will be in college). Over half of the colleges surveyed for NACAC’s Factors in the Admissions Decision report stated that teacher recommendations have either Moderate Importance or Considerable Importance in their decision-making process.

Despite playing such a large role in the process, many students make three crucial errors when it comes to letters of recommendation: They don’t ask their teachers early enough, they ask the wrong teachers, or they don’t provide the teacher with enough information to write a compelling letter.

In this post, we’ll discuss why recommendations are important and how to ensure that you receive stellar letters.

What Do Letters of Rec Do?

Teacher letters of recommendation offer admissions committees valuable insights into a student’s academic abilities and character, as well as contextualize their performance within the classroom. Admissions officers use these letters to gauge a student’s academic potential and predict their success in college-level coursework. 

Unlike standardized test scores or transcripts, rec letters can highlight interesting projects or papers, while providing a personalized narrative of the student’s intellectual curiosity, work ethic, and engagement with the subject matter. A recommendation letter from a math teacher, for instance, can shed light on how a student excels in problem-solving or analytical thinking. Beyond academics, letters of recommendation also delve into a student’s character and personal qualities. Teachers often have unique insights into a student’s interpersonal skills, leadership potential, and overall demeanor within the school community. They can provide anecdotes that highlight qualities such as resilience, creativity, or teamwork.

The final critical function of teacher recommendations is to contextualize a student’s achievements and challenges. Teachers can explain any extenuating circumstances that may have affected a student’s academic performance or personal growth. Whether it’s overcoming obstacles, managing a heavy extracurricular workload, or demonstrating exceptional improvement over time, teachers provide context that gives depth to the student’s story. This is essential for admissions officers striving to assess each applicant’s potential within the broader context of their individual circumstances. A student’s journey and growth trajectory, as articulated by a teacher who has witnessed it firsthand, can be instrumental in the admissions process.

Choosing Your Recommenders

You’ll want to secure two letters of recommendation. (While not every college will want that many, some do still require two, and you’ll want to be prepared). Generally speaking, teachers from your 11th-grade core courses are the best to target. Core courses carry the most weight in the admissions process and these teachers have had you in class most recently. A teacher from 9th grade won’t necessarily remember all of the good work you accomplished – and you’re not the same student you were back then! 

An important thing to know when considering who to ask for a recommendation is that you don’t necessarily need to ask the teacher who has given you the highest grade! If you earned 100% in a class because it was easy material and barely took any effort, but you didn’t really need to interact with the teacher, that letter of recommendation won’t be particularly compelling. 

Some of the best letters of recommendation I’ve ever read came from teachers of classes in which the student struggled but overcame obstacles and worked diligently to improve. Perhaps your English teacher knows you particularly well because you went to them for extra help twice a week after school. Or maybe your science grade wasn’t your highest, but a particular unit sparked a passion in you, and you did really well on the project that quarter. Think about the teachers who can speak to what type of student you are and how you pursue academic interests. 

When considering which teacher to ask, it can be helpful to consider the questions that your teacher will need to answer about you. The Common Application includes a rating system for teachers to utilize when completing their letters of recommendation:

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Think about which teacher would rank you the highest in these categories, or who knows you well enough to be able to speak to these qualities.

A final thought: some students try to decipher which teacher they think will write the best letter based on their perception of the teacher’s writing abilities. Hence, many students default to asking their English teachers. Don’t do this! While it can seem obvious to pick the teacher who you think might be most talented at writing, strong writing skills don’t always translate into a strong letter of recommendation. If your English teacher isn’t the one who knows you best, don’t ask them just because you think they’re good at writing.

When to Ask

The best time to ask for a letter of recommendation is before everyone else! Think about it: If most students in your grade are targeting an 11th grade, core course teacher, that means some teachers are going to get a LOT of requests. In my experience working in a high school, there were often teachers who only said yes to a select number of students. Once they had 20 or 30 requests, they reached their capacity. You also want to be sure to ask your teachers early so that you have enough time to ask an alternate teacher if the first says no.

Be sure to ask your teacher in person if they’d be willing to write you a recommendation. If they say yes, ask them if they have a questionnaire, or “brag sheet”, they’d like for you to complete, and be sure to do this as soon as possible. Lastly, be sure to follow up by officially requesting the letter through whatever avenue your school requires (Naviance/SCOIR, email, Common App, etc.). 

Teachers will often write their letters over the summer, so don’t be worried if you don’t have your completed recommendation right away. As long as it’s ready for you before the college’s deadline, you’ll be fine. 

How to Ensure you get a GREAT Letter of Recommendation:

So you’ve identified which teachers to ask, you’ve asked them early, and they’ve both said yes. Great! Now it’s time to help them help you. Many teachers have their own “brag sheet” that they’ll have students complete to aid them in their letter writing. Think of this brag sheet as your opportunity to write your own letter of recommendation! I tell my students that the effort they put into completing the brag sheet often directly correlates with the effort a teacher will put into their letter. If you only give them a few words or sentences, don’t be surprised if your letter similarly lacks effort. Try to write about specific experiences you had in class – what projects, papers, or units did you perform particularly well on? What work were you proud of in the class? Remember that while you only have one Math teacher, your Math teacher might have hundreds of students each year. Help them remember all of the good work that you did.

If your teacher doesn’t have a brag sheet or questionnaire that they use, make your own! Answer a few of the questions below to provide insight on what you think would be most valuable for your teacher to include in their letter. 

  1. What moment or experience stretched you the most in this class?
  2. What topic did you enjoy most in this class? Why?
  3. What about this class was challenging for you? How did you show resilience or persistence?
  4. What was the best piece of work you did in this class?
  5. What was your proudest moment in this class?
  6. How did this class connect to something you are passionate about?
  7. What have you done outside this class to enrich your knowledge or interest in this subject?
  8. What are your plans to continue studying this or a related subject in college?
  9. How were you an effective communicator in this class?
  10. How did you grow as a student in this class?
  11. How has what you learned in this class changed the way you think or solve problems?
  12. How did you demonstrate leadership qualities in this class? Provide an example or two.
  13. What are you passionate about learning? How was this shown in this class? 

Remember, more is more when it comes to these brag sheets. Your teacher can’t read your mind. If there’s something specific you’d like to be included in your recommendation, don’t assume that your teacher will automatically know and include that information. Share it with them! 

Teacher letters of recommendation can serve as powerful tools in the college admissions process. These letters are not merely endorsements; they are powerful narratives that illuminate the unique qualities and promise of each student. By following these tips, you’re setting yourself up to ensure excellent recommendations.