How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation

There are seemingly endless parts to your college application, but the comforting thing is that you have total control over them.  You have the power to write a beautiful personal statement, to get the ACT score you need, to fill out every last blank of required information perfectly and neatly; it’s just the drive and discipline that is necessary to put that power to successful use.

However, there is one area that pops up that you may feel you have far less control over, and that is the infamous letter of recommendation.  This can certainly be nerve-wracking since it’s the one part of the application you can’t write up on your own or study for to make it top-notch.  You won’t know what that person is saying or how well they’re saying it; you’re just going to have to trust that it was great and turn it in.  But thankfully, what you can do is control the way you go about asking for it.

Obviously the first step would be to pick out the person you are going to ask.  Most often, you will be going to a teacher for this letter, so you must identify what teachers you have the appropriate relationship with for this.  This is one of the most crucial steps of the process because if you spend your time asking and counting on a teacher who you really don’t have that strong of a relationship with, you’re either going to get a “no” or a very generic letter that lacks a sincerely personal perspective.  Since neither of those are options you desire or have the time for, it’s clearly best to just get your choice right the first time.

To make this easier, let’s go over the criteria for this esteemed teacher-student relationship.  To start, this needs to be a teacher that easily remembers you by name.  It is no secret that teachers have tons of different students throughout the years and although they may recognize your face and say hello when they pass you in the halls, they may not always directly remember who you are.  A teacher who you are planning on asking for a letter of recommendation must not fall into that category.  This teacher needs to be someone who when they see you, remembers your name and what kind of student you were in their classroom.  Good teachers pay attention to their students and if you stand out to them for whatever reason, you will leave a lasting impression on them.  It doesn’t necessarily mean you will be on their mind forever, but their specific memories of you will immediately return when they see you.  Hence, this is the kind of teacher you want writing this letter.

Secondly, this teacher should ideally be someone who you worked with in some way outside of the scheduled class hour.  This could mean a lot of things; you made consistent efforts to show up early in the morning to get help on the class material, you were part of a school organization they sponsored or coached, you consulted with them on your class schedule, etc.  Whatever the specifics may be, it is pivotal that you had some sort of personal connection with them that made you more than just one of the kids in the many rows of desks.  It just wouldn’t make sense to ask a teacher for a recommendation letter if they never had a conversation with you that didn’t involve you raising your hand amongst twenty other students.

Finally, it’s probably obvious that this teacher likes you since you’ve made it this far in considering them as your letter writer – but make sure you are really certain about that.  Nine out of ten times, you’re probably right and they do genuinely like you, but this is the kind of thing you would hate to overlook and have hurt you later.  Never assume a teacher is crazy about you unless you are completely, utterly confident about it.  Any doubts in your mind, no matter how tiny, should be well-evaluated before you make this decision.

In regards to the process of actually asking for the letter, you should write a simple, polite, and informative note – it’s the way you go about writing it that can make or break your chances of success, however.  So, look at this as another opportunity to control a portion of your overall application.  Put your best effort into this note as you have with all of the other areas.

This note must begin with a very kind reminder of who you are, as well as a sincere interest in how the teacher is doing.  Relate back to the reasons you know them outside of the classroom and touch base.  This is an extra reminder of why you two have a good relationship and also a way to protect yourself from immediately diving into “I need a favor.”  Next, when you actually ask them for the letter, it is incredibly important that you give a good amount of significant details about the school and program you’re applying to, as well as what the admissions staff is looking for the letter writers to address, and of course, your deadlines.  The more information you give right away, the better idea the teacher will have of whether or not they can do it – and with you being considerate enough to give the information so promptly, they are very likely to agree to your request.  Top off the note with an honest thank you and this inquiry of yours will be very hard to turn down.

Lastly, give the teacher plenty of time.  Nothing could hurt you more than sending this note only a week or two before you need the letter.  Make sure you are asking well in advance so the teacher does not feel pressured or rushed.  Most teachers, especially the ones you feel comfortable enough to go to for this type of thing, are happy to write these letters.  So as long as you show them you are respectful, helpful, and deserving of one, you are sure to get one.