Teacher recommendations are an important part of your college application at many schools, with most requiring one or two letters in support of your application. What these recommendations offer are additional insights into your personality, intellectual curiosity, and potential impact on your college community.
These letters of recommendation (LORs) are only one element of your application and probably won’t make or break the school’s decision. In my experience on the admissions side of the desk, I know that most will not actively hurt a candidacy, unless the recommendation raises a red flag. Your LORs can, however, boost your candidacy if the evaluation reveals outstanding qualities and shows you as a cut above your peers. “Boilerplate” recommendations that are generic and lack enthusiasm generally fail to add anything of value to your candidacy. While you can’t help what a recommender writes, you should try to select teachers who you are confident like and admire you and will provide a meaningful endorsement.
Here are a few things to consider as you solidify your teacher recommendations — and one thing you should do once they’ve been submitted:
1. In most instances, your recommendation(s) can be written by any teacher who has taught you in a solid, academic course in 10th, 11th, or 12th grade. What do I mean by “solid, academic course”? Any class within the disciplines of math, science, English, social studies, or foreign language. Religion, for example, would not be considered a solid, academic course in most instances. Eleventh grade teachers and those who have taught you in multiple years are often the best candidates for a teacher recommendation.
2. Check each college’s requirements carefully. Some schools will require recommendations from specific teachers – for example, math or science teacher recommendations for engineering applicants, or art teachers for art applicants. In general, it’s preferable to ask teachers from two different disciplines to write your recommendations.
3. The Common Application Teacher Evaluation form asks about intellectual promise, enthusiasm, and initiative, as well as such specifics as “written expression of ideas,” “effective class discussion,” and “disciplined work habits.” Think about which teachers might respond most positively and directly to these questions. Who might best convey different strengths and dimensions to your personality?
4. Give your teachers as much time as possible to complete their recommendations. If you are applying early decision or early action, forms might be due as early as October. A month before the first deadline is not too early to ask a teacher; a week before is too late. Popular 11th grade teachers might write several dozen recommendations each fall and devote a great deal of time to each letter. Get in line early.
5. Make your teachers’ tasks easier by providing them with a digital folder with all the forms you need filled out, and ensure that your information on those forms is as complete as possible. Make sure the forms are well organized, and added points if you attach a schedule to the outside of the folder, highlighting the date of the first deadline. This is especially important if it’s prior to November 1.
Teachers have many demands on their time, and organizing your items this way will make a good impression, encouraging them to submit your letters on time. Still, it’s not pushy to remind the teacher of a deadline a week before it arrives – if the date has slipped their mind, you’ll both be glad of the reminder.
6. Some teachers have specific questionnaires for students to complete prior to writing their LORs. But if the teachers you have asked do not give you a questionnaire, share your reasons for asking them, either in person or via email. Why did you enjoy their class? What did you gain from it? Remind your teacher about some of your most memorable work in the class. Do you still have copies of papers or exams that you can provide? Think about which classes taught you the most; the best teacher recommendations aren’t always from the class in which you earned the highest grade.
7. The purpose of the teacher recommendation is to clarify your academic contributions and learning style. A strong LOR from a teacher will focus on these ideas (perhaps including how you overcame any challenges). If the teacher has also worked with you in a club or extracurricular capacity, your involvement there can provide additional insight.
8. The best teacher recommendations do not restate information found in other parts of your application. As an admissions person, seeing this kind of repetition was the most frustrating part for me. I really wanted new insight and fresh anecdotes to help me understand the applicant. It’s tempting for a lot of teachers to summarize your activities, clubs, and organizations in their letter, but you’ve already included that information in your application. It’s reasonable for you to ask that the LOR focus on your performance and unique contributions within the context of the class or classes.
9. You can assign which teacher LORs are sent to which schools. You must provide your teachers’ email addresses in your Common Application and invite them to upload their letters to your account.
10. The Common Application will ask you whether you waive your right* to see the recommendations. By all means, the answer is yes! If you don’t believe the teacher you are asking will write a candid, positive LOR for you, you should choose a different teacher! Colleges will place less weight on an LOR if the applicant hasn’t waived the right to access the letter.
11. If any teachers tell you that they are uncertain of how to write a thorough, positive letter detailing your strengths, share a link to Accepted’s very helpful guide “Ten Tips for Writers of Letters of Recommendation.” This guide is also helpful for coaches, employers, and other supplemental references.
12. After your LORs have been submitted to the schools, thank your teachers for their time (you should also thank them before they start writing). Don’t just dash off a one-sentence “thanks” that could have been written by anyone. They made time in their busy schedules to think about and write a carefully drafted LOR to help launch you into your college career — and beyond. A thoughtful and meaningful thank-you note will make them glad they made the effort. And expressing gratitude is a healthy, feel-good activity. Finally, don’t forget to let them know where you’re admitted and where you’ll attend!
By Judy Gruen, a former Accepted admissions consultant. Judy holds a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University and is the co-author of Accepted’s first full-length book, MBA Admission for Smarties: The No-Nonsense Guide to Acceptance at Top Business Schools. Want an admissions expert help you get accepted? Click here to get in touch!