Teacher recommendations are an important part of your college application at many colleges, with most colleges requiring one or two letters in support of your application. These recommendations provide additional insight into your personality, intellectual curiosity, and potential impact on your college community.
From my time on the admissions side of the desk, I know that many teacher recommendations add little to the student’s application. Admissions staff try never to penalize a student for something he can’t control, so the boilerplate recommendation generally fails to add to your application rather than detracting.
A few things to consider as you solidify your teacher recommendations:
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. A solid, academic course comes from the disciplines of math, science, English, social studies or foreign language. Religion is not a solid academic course in most instances. 11th grade teachers, and teachers who have taught you in multiple years are often the best candidates for a teacher recommendation.
2. Some colleges do have specific requirements regarding recommendations from specific teachers, for example math or science for Engineering applicants, or art for art applicants. Check each college’s requirements carefully. In general, it’s preferable to ask teachers from two different disciplines to write your recommendations.
3. Give your teachers as much time as possible to complete your recommendations. Some teachers devote a great deal of time to each letter and popular junior year teachers may write several dozen recommendations each fall.
4. When discussing recommendations with your teacher, either in person or via email, share with your teacher your reasons for asking him or her. Why did you enjoy the class? 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? The best teacher recommendations aren’t always from the class in which you earned the highest grade.
5. The purpose of the teacher recommendation is to clarify your academic contributions and learning style. A good teacher recommendation will focus on these ideas (perhaps including how you overcame any challenges).
6. Academics are the most important but if the teacher has also worked with you in a club or extracurricular capacity, this can add additional insight.
7. Caution: the best teacher recommendations do not reiterate information found in other parts of your application. As an admissions person, this was the most frustrating part for me. I really wanted new insight and anecdotes to help me understand the applicant, not a list of clubs and organizations. It’s tempting for a lot of teachers to summarize your activities in their letter, but you’ve already included that information in your application.
8. Teachers upload recommendations directly into the common application. You will provide your teachers’ email addresses in your application and proceed to invite them to add their letters. You can select different recommenders for different schools. They can then create a common application account and upload their letters. The process can be slightly different if your high school uses Naviance to handle common applications.
9. The Common Application will also ask you if you would like to waive your right* to see the recommendations, and by all means, the answer is yes! If you don’t believe the teacher you are asking will write a candid, positive letter of recommendation, then choose a different teacher! Colleges will place less weight on a letter of recommendation if the applicant hasn’t waived the right to access the letter.
*Waiving your right to see your letters of recommendation only applies to reading the letters AFTER you are accepted to a school and IF that school actually keeps the letters on file.
10. Finally, thank your teachers, both in advance for their time and after your letter has been submitted.
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