Whom, when, and how to ask for college recommendation letters that can help your child get into their dream school
Your child has spent countless hours to achieve a high GPA and standardized test scores. They’ve also participated in impactful extracurricular activities throughout their high school years and are gearing up to write a stellar personal statement.
Why, then, does your child need letters of recommendation for college admission?
The truth is that, while the admissions committee learns a great deal about your child from the rest of their application materials, recommendation letters provide them with something they don’t yet have: an adult’s opinion of who your child is as a student and person.
In other words, LORs reveal character traits and unique aspects of your child’s personality that test scores and a resume cannot. They also demonstrate to admissions committees that your child has adult professionals willing to vouch for them.
Perhaps you’re thinking, “Okay, but does anyone even read these letters?” The answer is: yes.
How important are letters of recommendation for college?
Much like your child’s personal statement and supplemental college essays, recommendation letters can be the difference between acceptance and rejection. You probably know students or have heard of people with perfect stats and great extracurriculars who didn’t get into their dream school. Those cases often come down to submitting mediocre college essays and LORs.
Admissions committees want to be able to imagine what your child is like as a person and how they might interact with other students and teachers. If reviewers can’t picture your child adding value to their campus, they’ll be rejected.
Now that we’ve covered the importance of LORs, you may start to worry about how your child can obtain top-notch recommendation letters from their teachers. No need! By the time you finish reading this article you will know whom, how and when your child should ask for the LORs required by their dream schools.
Who to ask for a letter of recommendation
Follow the rules
Your child should always follow the instructions provided by the school.
If the university requests a letter from an academic teacher, your child should send a letter from an academic teacher. If the schools asks for two academic teachers and a third open option, your child should send recommendation letters from two academic teachers and a third from someone who closely supervised their extracurricular activities or an employer who observed their diligence, initiative, and impact.
Following the rules is a surefire way to get off on the right foot.
Choose someone because they know you, not because they are famous
Your child should request recommendation letters from people who know them well.
While it may seem like a good idea to ask a teacher who is an alum of their top-choice school, or a teacher who has celebrity status in your child’s community, your child will only benefit if the recommender can write a substantial and persuasive letter about them. If a teacher only knows your child’s face and final grade in the course, the letter will likely be underwhelming and generic.
It is best to choose letter writers who know your child as a student and person and who can elaborate on their unique character. Chosen well, your child’s LORs will include information about them that isn’t found elsewhere on their application.
Think outside the box
When given the open-ended option for letters and feeling uncertain about whom to choose, your child should get creative.
If your child has a coach, adviser or employer who has known them for some time and can speak articulately on their behalf, perhaps they are a good choice. In addition, instructors who know your child through an extracurricular activity (as opposed to an academic course) can often provide a unique perspective that may not come up inside the classroom.
Main point: unless specified by the school, don’t rule out adults just because they haven’t taught your child inside the classroom.
It is best for your child to choose recommenders from their current school year or a year prior, unless they’ve maintained a great relationship with a teacher from an earlier grade level.
A teacher who knew your child freshman year and has not interacted with them since? Pass. On the other hand, a teacher who met your child freshman year and has mentored them since? Compelling choice.
When to ask for a letter of recommendation
Your child should request recommendation letters at least two months before their application deadlines and be clear about when their college application deadlines are.
If your child happens to know they would like to ask a particular teacher well in advance, they could let them know early on that they hope to get a LOR from them.
Remember, teachers are often inundated with LOR requests 2-3 months prior to application deadlines. Asking in advance means your child’s teacher won’t be rushed and will be more likely to submit a stronger letter.
(Further reading: The Ideal College Application Timeline)
How to ask for a letter of recommendation
Ask in person, whenever possible. Even if your child initially sends an email to set up the meeting, an in-person request is always preferable to an email request. The latter may appear less invested and less mature.
Here is a sample email to request the letter in person:
Dear [Teacher’s Name],
I hope all is well with you. I’m applying to college this upcoming year and am hoping you would offer your perspective on the process as I’ve always valued your guidance. If so, please let me know some days/times that work well for you to meet, and I’ll make sure to accommodate. Thank you for your time and consideration!
[Your Name/Last Name]
If asking in person is not an option, here is a sample script for the recommendation letter request email:
Dear [Teacher’s Name],
I hope all is well with you. I’m applying to college this upcoming year and am wondering whether you’d feel comfortable writing a strong letter of recommendation. [Authentic sentence explaining why you would value a letter from them (ex. why you value their perspective, etc.)]. If you’re willing to provide a letter, I will provide the following materials: 1) a list of my grades 2) my CV, 3) a draft of my personal statement, and 4) the school’s guidelines for letters of recommendation. Thank you for your time and consideration!
[Your Name/Last Name]
If your child is unsure whether or not an adult will write a compelling recommendation, they should ask the recommender if they would feel comfortable providing a “strong letter of recommendation.” If a teacher seems hesitant, your child should simply thank them and move on to the next. Better to suffer that minor rejection than end up with a weak LOR and lower admissions odds.
If your child is pretty certain that an adult will not write a positive recommendation, don’t ask them. Remember, the admissions committee is evaluating your child, not the person writing the letter. Your child’s relationship with the recommender outweighs their background or perceived status.
Your child should offer to provide their recommenders with application materials or a short list of notable accomplishments (sometimes referred to as a “brag sheet”), should they wish to look them over. Many teachers with stacks of letters to write will decline; however, it is wise to offer. Materials to provide include:
a finalized personal statement or advanced draft
a list grades (a transcript copy will do)
a CV or resume
any specific instructions from the school requesting the LOR
Waive the right to view your letters of recommendation
By this point, you’re likely convinced about the importance of LORs, have a solid idea of whom your child should request them from, and how to do so politely. However, you may still be wondering, “Should my child waive the right to examine this letter of recommendation?” Anxiety about sending an unread LOR to your child’s top school is completely normal. After all, LORs are the only part of your child’s application that you cannot see prior to sending.
However, your child should waive their right to see LORs on their application when prompted. Otherwise, schools will not trust the letters, as they assume teachers are less honest with their commentary when they know their letter will be reviewed by the student.
How to follow up on letters of recommendation
Before the deadline
Say your child has requested LORs in advance, but a month has passed and they haven’t heard from their writer or the school regarding submission. Your child is probably anxious to reach out, but concerned about annoying someone who is doing them a favor.
The good news? It is completely acceptable to reach out to recommenders with a reminder. In fact, they are probably expecting it! Your child should follow up with their recommenders about two weeks to a month prior to their first application deadline to express gratitude and ensure their letters have been (or are about to be) sent. Here’s a sample letter of recommendation follow-up email:
Dear [Teacher’s Name],
I hope all is well with you. I plan to submit my college applications [on date or in # of days/weeks], so I’m sending a reminder regarding your recommendation letter. Please let me know if there is any additional information I can provide.
Thank you for all of your support!
[Your Name/Last Name]
After your child has heard back
Once your child has heard back from schools and has made a decision on where to attend, it’s important that they send a thank you note to recommenders updating them on their admissions results and decision on where they’ll be attending.
Your child’s letter writers will be grateful to hear their decision directly. A hand-written thank you note will add an extra mature touch.
Here’s a sample thank you letter for your child’s recommendation writers:
Dear [Teacher’s Name],
Thank you again for supporting my college applications by offering your perspectives on the process and submitting a recommendation letter. I wanted to let you know that I was accepted to [school name] and plan to attend in the Fall!
I feel very fortunate to have great mentors like you. Thank you, again, for all of your support.
[Your Name/Last Name]
What makes a good letter of recommendation
Specific examples and anecdotes are key components of a persuasive LOR, as they tell the admissions committee that the writer truly knows your child and can provide examples to back up the claims they are making.
Generic: George is a brilliant student and has a clear passion for chemistry.
Specific: George is a brilliant student who has a clear passion for chemistry. It came as no surprise that in addition to being the best student in my class, he also scored a 5 on the AP exam. I was continually impressed by George’s zest for chemistry and his involvement in not one, but two different science clubs on campus.
Powerful language and the use of superlatives tell the admissions committee that your child’s writer feels strongly about just how wonderful they are. Rather than imply your child is as good a candidate as any other, this kind of language states that they are superior to other candidates and should be viewed as such.
Vague/generic: Sally wrote good essays during her time in my AP English course and was always friendly with her peers.
Clear/powerful: Sally’s essays during her time in my AP English course were some of the most compelling I’ve read in 16 years of teaching. In addition, she was an absolute pleasure to have in class and beloved by all of her peers.
A recommendation and an enthusiastic recommendation read quite differently. You want your child’s writer to convince the admissions committee that they should accept them or they will be sorely missing out. Enthusiastic support tells the committee that your child doesn’t just deserve not to be rejected (pardon the double negative), but rather that they deserve to be accepted and valued.
Unenthusiastic support: I recommend John be accepted to your undergraduate program. If you have questions, please contact me.
Enthusiastic support: I give John my highest recommendation, as I know he will continue to excel in college and beyond. It was my pleasure to serve as his teacher and I am confident that he will add great value to your university. Please do not hesitate to contact me with any questions.
Insight into your child’s personality, not just their grades
You already know that your child’s dream school is looking for an outstanding GPA as well as ACT, SAT, and other test scores, but they also want to know more.
As discussed earlier, schools want to know who your child is as a person, not just as a student. A recommendation letter that fails to address this will leave them wondering: does the student have a negative (or no) personality? Does this teacher not really know them, just their name and final grade?
Grades only: Sonia performed impressively in my course and was well known for her academic prowess on campus.
Additional insight: Sonia performed impressively in my course and was well known for her academic prowess on campus as well as her kind spirit. For instance, I routinely observed Sonia outside the cafeteria helping sign up peers for volunteer work with several of the organizations she championed. Sonia’s work with Heal The Bay often came up in class discussion, making her passion for the environment undeniable.
Sample College Recommendation Letter
Dear Admissions Committee,
I had the pleasure of teaching Leah Watkins in her 11th grade AP English Literature class at Fitzgerald High School. From the beginning, Leah impressed me with her passion for literature and her ability to understand and articulate difficult concepts. Leah is incredibly insightful and skilled in picking up nuances and subtleties within the text. In addition to achieving an A+ in my notoriously difficult class and a 5 on the AP exam, I am not surprised to find out that Leah is now ranked at the top of perhaps the most capable senior class in our school’s 65-year history.
Leah is an active and engaging student, who participated frequently in class and routinely supported her peers. Throughout the year, she provided her peers with a safe space to share their opinions and receive helpful feedback. Even when others’ opinions differed from her own, Leah was open, compassionate and kind. During a class debate about abortion, Leah offered to speak for the side opposite her own views in order to practice putting herself in others’ shoes. Leah’s warmth and empathy as a person enhance her skills as a writer and make her a true joy to have in the classroom.
Outside of the classroom, Leah demonstrated a passion and talent for poetry as the president of the Fitzgerald Poetry Club during sophomore and junior year. As president, Leah seamlessly combined her skills as a poet with her natural leadership abilities. Leah’s kindness and openness to feedback made her a beloved president, and I imagine she will be greatly missed by her younger peers upon graduation.
Leah has my highest recommendation for admission to your undergraduate program. I have no doubt that she will continue to do great things in the future and will be a valuable member of your community. Please feel free to contact me with any questions.
Fitzgerald High School