How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation

Letters of recommendation tell colleges who you are as a person.

Required by some, but recommended by almost all institutions, letters of recommendation are an often underutilized, vitally important piece of your college application. These letters often tell the stories your essay and other materials can’t. So, how do you go about getting a recommendation letter? Here are a few things to consider:

Whom do I ask to write a letter of recommendation?

In general, you should approach a teacher for a recommendation letter who has watched you grow over time—someone who can highlight your positive qualities. Consider asking a teacher, advisor, coach, or school counselor with whom you have a connection or shared interest. They’ve watched you grow, learn, and mature from a nervous ninth grader into a soon-to-graduate senior ready to take on the world. Just make sure the person writing your letter has recent stories to tell—if you haven’t worked with them in a few years, you may want to consider asking someone else. Your recommender should be able to speak about recent, relevant information that shows who you are in and out of the classroom.

Consider asking a teacher with whom you have a shared connection to write your recommendation letter.
Photo by Ryan Bent, ’08 // Ryan Bent Photography

What do I ask for in the letter of recommendation?

Some of the most compelling recommendation letters don’t come out of the classes in which you got an easy A. Character is often shaped by the classes that challenge us most. Perhaps the class wasn’t your favorite subject or the concepts didn’t come easily to you. If you didn’t let those challenges discourage you—you asked for extra help, put in additional work, or came back from a rough start—you have the makings of an inspiring reference.

The best stories of your character often come out of the classes that challenged you most.

When do I ask for a recommendation?

You’ll need to keep in mind the amount of time it will take for your teacher to fulfill what you’ve asked of them. You should provide a minimum of a month’s time before your application deadline for your teacher to write the letter. But we recommend you make the request even earlier—at the end of your junior year. If someone declines, you’ll have time to consider other candidates. If they accept, they’ll have ample time to craft a strong, thoughtful letter of recommendation. Keep in mind, though, that a gentle reminder and check-in will be helpful when you start your senior year. Deadlines can approach quickly—make sure you’re both prepared to meet them!

A great letter of recommendation can send you on your way to your dream college!
Photo by Logan Hall-Potvin, ’19 // Hall-Potvin Photography

How do I ask for the letter?

Your request should come through a face-to-face conversation—ideally, one that occurs during free time, not during class hours. Ask politely and prepare your thoughts ahead of time; you can also offer some of the reasons why you are approaching them in particular.

Always ask someone in person if they’re willing to write you a letter of recommendation.

Providing details will help them write a personalized recommendation letter. It’s very helpful to hand them a “brag sheet”—a list of your involvements and accomplishments over the course of your high school career. You can also let them know your goals and dreams for the future. Make sure you share detailed information about deadlines and submission formats.

Even when you have a good relationship with a teacher, it can feel intimidating to approach someone for a letter of recommendation. Rest assured, they’re likely honored to be asked. With this in mind, you should still be thoughtful about how you approach them. Be kind and polite and appreciative of their time.

Remember to thank your recommenders.

After all is said and done, give your recommenders a sincere, hand-written note thanking them for the time they spent helping you through this process. While it might be easy for them to speak highly of you, these letters are still difficult to write. Make sure the writers receive the appreciation they deserve!

Take the time to write a thank you note to your recommenders for their help!
Photo by Ryan Bent, ’08 // Ryan Bent Photography

Recommendation letters may not be the deciding factor in your college applications, but their potential to impact your admittance to your preferred schools shouldn’t be ignored. Your transcript, test scores, and essay only tell a few pieces of your story; your recommendation letters breathe life into the spaces in-between. Don’t hesitate to ask for help. Having a strong letter of recommendation will make your admissions counselor sit up, take note, and get a better sense of why you are a great fit for their school.

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