More about recommendation letters

I joined a Facebook group of college counselors and consultants recently, and this week there was an interesting conversation. Basically, a counselor had realized that some of the teachers at their school were writing student recommendation letters that were badly written, form letters, or both. Lots of others commented that the counselor should do something immediately, perhaps instigate refresher training for teachers on the campus, or maybe even district-wide. And it hit me that I was a high school teacher for 17 years who wrote dozens of rec letters, and I’d never had any sort of training or guidance. Unlike at some other districts, we just had to figure it out. Or not.

I remember a fellow teacher coming to me for advice about writing rec letters a few years ago. He said he’d done a solid job of explaining the student’s good qualities, but was having trouble knowing how to explain the student’s shortcomings. He didn’t seem to believe me when I told him that he didn’t need to explain the shortcomings.

I remember my principal once telling us that we were not to send off bad recommendation letters—that if we didn’t recommend the student then we should just decline to write a letter. I’d love to know the story behind that one. However, the principal didn’t suggest any kind of guidance for how to write good rec letters.

I remember someone telling me about being on a scholarship committee. There was one local teacher who recommended someone for the scholarship each year, and each year used the exact same letter. He just changed the name. Since he did this every year, and since he always claimed the student was “the best student I’ve ever taught,” it came to be a joke among the scholarship committee. They tried not to hold it against the student being recommended, but there’s only so much you can do to ignore the bad letter.

With all this in mind, I’ve updated my “How do I ask a teacher for a recommendation letter?” section on the website. Read it below.

Understand what you’re asking for. Have you ever seen a letter of recommendation? Have you ever written one? Do you really understand what you’re asking for? Take some time to get familiar with the type of letter you’re asking for. Look at these examples with comments. You’ll have a better idea of who to ask, when to ask, and how to ask if you have a better appreciation for what all goes into a good recommendation.

Write one for yourself. Seriously. Put yourself into the mind of the teacher you want a letter from, and try to write your very best letter about you as if you were that teacher. Think about what qualities that teacher would say stand out, and think of narratives and examples that teacher could give about you. Do not try to send it as if they wrote it! That’s not what this is for. Probably nobody will see the letter you write, but it’s a great exercise. Self knowledge is the best knowledge, and few things help you know yourself like having to explain yourself.

Make sure you ask someone who can help you. Like the essays and interviews, recommendation letters are one of your opportunities to show colleges that you’re an interesting person, not just a transcript. So make sure you ask for recommendation letters from teachers who know you as a person. Some schools specify which teachers they want letters from, and there’s nothing you can do about that. But when you have control, get teachers who will say great things about you. If a teacher is likely to just rehash what’s already in your transcript, then you’ve lost a big opportunity. If a teacher is writing letters for a lot of other students, then that teacher may not be able to write a unique and personal letter for you. A teacher who had you for a class and also sponsored an activity you were involved with is ideal. A teacher you’ve had good rapport with and who knows you as a person is going to be better for you than a teacher you doesn’t know you as well but gave you higher grades.

Understand that it’s a personal favor. Teachers are not required to write recommendation letters, and they’re certainly not required to write good ones, so treat it as a favor. When I was a teacher, I liked it when students set up an appointment with me to come and talk to me about rec letters. I preferred to know why they were coming so I could prepare questions or suggestions. I loved it when a student sent me an email asking to come by later and ask for a rec letter. However, I also worked with teachers who didn’t care for this approach. They feel like they have to have the same conversation multiple times. So there’s no one best approach.

But whatever you do, ask for the letter politely and with lots of time to spare. Don’t rush the teacher or treat it like a foregone conclusion that they’ll write you one. And never corner a teacher while they’re trying to get someplace else.

Give them some direction. Hopefully you’ve given a lot of thought to what personal traits you want to discuss in your application essays. Let the teachers who you’re asking for recommendations know what those traits are. If there’s a particular story or example you’re hoping they’ll write about, let them know. Teachers may or may not follow up on that, but it can’t hurt to ask. Which do you think will get a better rec letter:

·      “Mr. Holloway, can you write me a letter of recommendation?”


·      “Mr. Holloway, I’m putting together my college applications, and I’m really trying to emphasize my creative problem solving. Would it be possible for you to write me a letter of recommendation? I was remembering the time in class when the computer crashed in the middle of my Power Point presentation and I still found a way to get the information across without it.”

Unless the teacher asks for it, I don’t think you should give them a copy of your transcript or your résumé. It makes it too easy for the teacher to write about what’s already in your application. Instead, offer to send the teacher any information or reminders they need. Even better, offer to show the the letter you wrote for yourself. It’s a common practice in business to have people write their own recommendations to be edited and sent off. Show the person you’re asking a letter from how confident you are and what you need by offering your letter. However, don’t offer to write the first draft yourself unless you already have it written.

If they say no, don’t be pushy. This should go without saying. There are a number of reasons a teacher might say no when you ask for a recommendation. Don’t assume you know what the reason is, and don’t be pushy. Someone who can’t or doesn’t want to write a letter isn’t going to write a good one. If the teacher who says no is one who a college requires a letter from, let that teacher know and see if there’s something you can work out. But do this as a follow-up, not in the same conversation where the teacher initially says no.

Say thank you. A recommendation letter is a personal favor, so make sure you thank the teacher profusely. Thank the teacher when they agree to write the letter. Say thank you again—in writing—when the teacher sends the letter. When you get accepted to any school that the teacher recommended you for, say thank you again. A thank-you gift is not required, but is a nice gesture. But don’t give one until after the letter has been sent—you don’t want it to look like a bribe. 

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Photo by Angela Elisabeth Portraits

Photo by Angela Elisabeth Portraits