If admissions counselors are deciding between you and another student with identical test scores and grades, a strong letter of recommendation from a teacher, guidance counselor, advisor, or employer can tip the scales in your favor. Ideally, a recommendation should tell a story about you as a student and discuss your strengths and weaknesses in the classroom (or, if you’re a returning or adult student, about your goals and academic potential). Schools want to know about your level of engagement, how hard you work, and your involvement in activities outside of the classroom or workplace.
Who should I ask?
Who you should ask for a letter of recommendation depends on what type of student you are. Colleges often ask first-time college students (coming from high school) to submit letters of recommendation from teachers and guidance counselors. Transfer students are more likely to be asked to submit recommendations from professors and college advisors. Returning or adult students should choose their recommenders based on their time away from school, their time with current or previous employers, and the individual’s knowledge of their academic potential.
If you’re in high school:
- Your best bet is to pick a teacher who taught you during your junior year. Your senior year teachers haven’t had as much of a chance to get to know you, and your freshman and sophomore year teachers haven’t seen how you have matured. However, if you’ve had a teacher more than once, enjoyed their classes, gotten to know them, and done well multiple times, by all means ask them for a recommendation.
- Choose teachers you had for core subjects. Some colleges ask for one recommendation from a math or science teacher and one from a humanities teacher. Make sure the teachers you select fulfill any requirements set out by colleges. Check your school’s admissions website to ensure you’re asking the right people.
- Often, colleges want a recommendation from your high school guidance counselor. It is important to cultivate a relationship with your counselor early so that you are more to them than just a name in a sea of faces. If you don’t have a relationship with your guidance counselor, you can still ask for a recommendation. Make an appointment and spend some time having a conversation. Having them know you a little bit is better than not having them know you at all.
If you’re a transfer student:
- It is not a good idea to go back to your high school teachers for letters of recommendation, since you’ve been away for at least a semester. Depending on your reason for transferring, it may be hard to find someone who knows your work or your personality well enough to write a letter. If you have a professor at your institution whose class you did well in and who you know decently well, ask them. If you took a class taught by a teaching assistant, they may be willing to write your letter as well. Ask if the professor of the class will read over it and co-sign it.
- You also could ask your current academic advisor. As someone who helped you choose classes and who you are likely required to meet with at least once a semester (and who probably knows that you’re considering transferring), they likely know you more than just superficially.
If you’re a returning or adult student:
- Reach out to your most recent teachers or professors. If you took an informal continuing education class, completed some postsecondary education, or aren’t that far removed from high school or enrollment at a postsecondary institution, try contacting someone whose class you aced. If you don’t have an old teacher, what about a mentor of some sort? Did you complete an apprenticeship? Did you volunteer with the Peace Corps? Team leaders and supervisors also work.
- Ask your current employer. They’ll be able to describe your work ethic, dedication, maturity, and personality just as well as a teacher or advisor, and there’s the added benefit of them knowing you more recently.
When should I ask?
Plan to ask early in the academic year, well before applications are due. Anyone who will be writing you a recommendation is a busy individual, and they may not be writing letters for just you. If you give your teacher, counselor, advisor, or employer plenty of advance warning, you’re more likely to get a thoughtful and detailed letter. Be upfront about the deadline and don’t be afraid to ask your prospective recommender if they think they’ll have enough time to complete your letter. If they say no, you’ll still have plenty of time to ask someone else.
How should I ask?
Ask in person and be polite. Don’t interrupt a class or meeting. You are asking for a favor that will take a not insignificant amount of time and effort to complete. The last thing you want is for someone to send in a lackluster letter because they didn’t want to hurt your feelings by saying no. Most of the time they will be happy to write one for you, but if they hesitate, consider asking someone else.
What materials do I need to provide?
You should provide your recommenders with anything they could possibly need:
- A brief personal statement on why you are applying to each particular school and what you hope to get out of your college experience
- A detailed and legible list of all your schools, their addresses, their application deadlines, and their submission process (electronic or mail)
- Clarify if you are applying for scholarships or to a particular program or department.
- For schools that use the Common, Coalition, or Universal College Application, you can invite your recommender to submit a recommendation through the platform.
- For recommendations that need to be submitted through the postal service, provide your teacher with stamped envelope addressed to each college to which they’re writing a letter. Put the recommender’s name and the address of your high school, current institution, or place of employment in the upper left-hand corner as the return address.
- If there are specific recommendation forms required by a college, make sure that you either print them out or email them to each of your recommenders.
- A copy of your résumé
- A copy of your personal essay and the chosen prompt, if you already have it written
- Your contact information (email address and phone number) in case your recommenders have any questions or need more information from you
It’s important to waive your rights to read your recommendations. Colleges want to know that your recommenders felt comfortable stating their honest opinion about you. Waiving your rights also informs colleges that you are confident in your abilities and don’t feel the need to hide anything.
What do I need to do after submission?
Write a handwritten thank-you note to each of your recommenders and show your appreciation for the time they spent doing you a favor. After you have decided where you are going to school, inform them of your choice and thank them again for helping you get into college. Your teachers, counselors, advisors, and employers have all invested in your education and will be excited to share in your college application experience.
Page last updated: 05/2019