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  • Writer's pictureJenny Deren

Which Teachers Should I Ask to Write Letters of Recommendation?

As 11th grade comes to a close and college applications come into focus, it's time to ask your teachers for letters of recommendation. Whom should you ask, and how should you do it?

Here are some tips for maximizing the impact of your letters of recommendation (LORs).

Know your high school's LOR procedures

Above all, make sure you know any high school-specific processes for asking for letters of recommendation. Examples of LOR-related policies at some schools:

  • Need to ask a certain number of teachers (minimum or maximum)

  • Need to ask teachers of specific subjects

  • Need to submit a form to teachers when asking for a LOR

  • Need to complete a questionnaire (sometimes called a "brag sheet") for teachers who agree to write letters

  • Need to ask for letters by a specific deadline, for example asking before May 15th of 11th grade (or after a specific date, for example not until September 1st of 12th grade)

If your school has a procedure for asking for LORs, make sure you follow it (and if you have questions about it, make sure you ask your school counselor early!). If your school doesn't have a process for you to follow, don't worry! Read on.

Ask two teachers who have taught you in core academic subjects, ideally in 11th grade.

Why two?

Some colleges and universities require more LORs than others, but nearly all of them require between zero and two. If you ask two teachers, then you'll have your bases covered for every school you're applying to.

Why core academic subjects?

Core academic subjects are those generally required for high school graduation: math, science, history/social studies, English/language arts, and foreign language. These are the building blocks of more specialized education, and admissions officers want to know that you have a solid foundation. You should always consult each school's specific requirements to determine that your letters will meet their standards.

Why 11th grade?

Although you will be applying as a 12th grader, 11th grade is the "sweet spot" for LORs because your 11th-grade teachers have known you the longest, most recently. You may have had an excellent relationship with your 9th grade Biology teacher, but you've likely changed a lot since then, and that teacher may not know the older, more mature you as well as the younger, 9th or 10th grade version of you. Conversely, you may be taking a 12th-grade course that is extremely relevant for your intended college major, but you've basically just met your teacher when you're applying to college. She may not have as much material to draw on in her letter. Your 11th grade teachers know you most recently, have more experiences with you to write about, and will be able to write stronger, more compelling LORs.

Can I ask my adviser instead of my teacher?

No, at least not for a teacher letter of recommendation (see the frequently asked questions below for more on optional, supplemental letters). The objective of teacher letters of recommendation is to show what you'll be like as a student in the college classroom. Maybe your Model U.N. adviser knows you very well and likes you very much, but if he or she did not teach you in a core academic class, then they will not be able to provide the kind of letter that admissions officers want to receive from teachers. Your Model U.N. adviser will not be able to describe your abilities as an academic essay writer or your skills in facilitating class discussion -- unless, of course, they also taught your U.S. History course.

Ask one STEM teacher and one humanities teacher.

Even if you don't plan to major in either of these subjects, submitting letters from teachers of diverse academic fields will demonstrate your strength as a student across disciplines. Again, LORs are about demonstrating a solid foundation as a student, both academically and socio-emotionally. If your English teacher raves about your contributions to her class discussions, yet you're applying as a mechanical engineering major, all the better for you, because you will stand out in a pool of applicants who are mostly STEM-minded and may lack your ability to facilitate discussion in diverse settings and topics.

Ask teachers who will write strong, positive letters of recommendation.

This is the most important criteria -- and may therefore trump other factors influencing your decision of whom to ask. Your letter writers should be teachers who know you well as a student in their classroom. Ask teachers of classes in which you were an active, productive participant and not necessarily teachers of classes in which you earned the highest grades. Your letter writers should be able to provide clear, detailed examples of your positive contributions to their class. (See below for suggestions for jogging teachers' memories when it comes to examples of your work and class performance).

Because a positive letter is the most important factor, you may find that asking for positive letters means that you need to ask teachers who don't otherwise meet the criteria. For example, if none of your STEM teachers know you well enough to write a strong, positive letter, then maybe you'd be better off asking your English teacher and your Economics teacher. Or maybe you can't think of a second 11th grade teacher who can provide as many detailed, concrete examples of your work; in this case, you might ask your 11th grade Precalculus teacher and your 10th grade English teacher, with whom you have the most positive relationship you've ever had with a teacher. Special circumstances call for special arrangements, so consider your unique strengths, goals, and relationships with your teachers before deciding whom to ask.

Ask in person, before the end of 11th grade.

If you attend school remotely or otherwise cannot ask in person, it's ok to ask in an email or letter (no texts, please!). But if you can, ask your teachers face-to-face, either during or after school. Asking in-person demonstrates your high regard for your teacher and gives you the opportunity to gauge their interest in writing a letter for you. Most likely, your teacher will be honored and agree right away. But if, for some reason, they seem to hesitate or are unsure, then you'll have the chance to reevaluate the strength of this potential letter -- and perhaps ask a different teacher instead.

One reason teachers sometimes say "no, thanks" is because many students have already asked them. By asking teachers before the end of your 11th grade school year (unless your school's policy dictates otherwise), you can ensure that your teachers don't "fill up" with college-bound letter seekers before you have a chance to ask. Furthermore, some teachers use the summer break to draft letters, even though they're not teaching classes. Asking early will increase the chances that your letter is submitted on time, and it may even ensure that it's a high-quality letter because your teacher will have more time to reflect and write during the break than during the fall semester. Finally, asking early will allow you to cross one task off your application to-do list. One less thing to think about during the very busy fall of 12th grade!

Ask with gratitude and respect.

Yes, writing LORs is part of your teacher's job, but no, they do not have to write a letter for anyone and everyone. Writing takes time and energy, so don't forget to say "please" and "thank you." You may also ask whether your teacher would like to you provide any materials that may help them write your letter, such as a resume or your Common App Activities List. Some schools, or even individual teachers, ask students to complete a questionnaire (or "brag sheet") for this purpose. If this is the case at your school, or if your teacher gives you a form to fill out, fill it out and return it on time!

In the late summer or early fall, you should follow up with a second "thank you" that also serves as a gentle reminder. This note or email should include:

  • sincere thanks for agreeing to write your letter of recommendation;

  • details about the schools you're applying to (with application deadlines, if possible);

  • your intended major or general field of study (and any longer-term career goals, if you know them);

  • a brief description of your strongest, most positive memories from their class, especially if those memories are also turning points or moments of self-discovery. This is how you'll gently "remind" your teachers (without explicitly reminding them) of those specific examples you hope they'll include in your letter.

Check out these frequently asked questions for more advice!

For School A, I can submit an "optional" or "supplemental" LOR. What is this? Should I submit one?

Many schools give you the option to submit an additional, optional letter from someone outside of school who knows you well. If you have someone outside of school who knows you well and can speak to your readiness for college-level studies or your potential contributions to campus life, you should ask them if they can write a letter on your behalf. BUT: use this option wisely! Admissions officers read very quickly for clearly relevant information. Quality is better than quantity when it comes to LORs. Three excellent letters are better than ten mediocre ones, and it is entirely possible for three mediocre letters to dilute a very strong and positive fourth one.

If you have the option, your application should include one -- and only one -- additional letter to supplement the two submitted by your teachers. Your supplemental letter writer should be someone who knows you well (ideally for at least one year), can include concrete, positive examples of your ability to succeed at the school(s) you're applying to, and knows you from an activity or experience that is a significant part of who you are and how you spend your time. These letter writers are often leaders of community organizations, internship or job supervisors, research mentors or college course instructors, and coaches of outside-of-high school teams -- who have direct, extensive experience working with you. They are not high-profile alums of the school you're applying to that met you once five years ago for two minutes.

Should I submit more LORs? (Wouldn't it be better to have as many as possible?)

No! As I mentioned above, quality is better than quantity when it comes to LORs. Three excellent letters are better than ten mediocre ones, and it is entirely possible for three mediocre letters to dilute a very strong and positive fourth one. Submit the required or recommended number of teacher recommendations (this is almost always between zero and two) and one supplemental letter, if given the opportunity to do so. Do not submit additional letters beyond what is asked for or allowed, unless you have an extremely compelling reason for doing so.

Do I need to ask my school (or guidance) counselor for a LOR?

Generally, no, but you should talk early and often with your school counselor about your applications and your school's process for helping you apply. Most schools have internal deadlines for you to meet -- for example, a deadline for giving the guidance office a list of the schools you're applying to so your counselor can submit forms on time. Your school (guidance) counselor is responsible for sending your official transcript, completing a School Report form and counselor recommendation, and then completing a Mid-Year Report and Final Report during and after your 12th grade year. Typically, you don't need to ask your school counselor to do these things because it's part of what they do for you in their role as counselor. However, the more you talk to them about it, the more likely they are to write a stronger, more detailed, and more positive letter and evaluation for you because they will know you that much better. (And because they will admire your initiative and organization!).

Should I waive my right to see my LORs?

Yes! Admissions officers value letters that provide an honest assessment of you as a student and citizen of your school so they can evaluate your potential contributions to their own school community. When you waive your right to see your letter, they know that your letter writer is providing an honest, objective account of your participation in their class during high school. In the Common Application, you can waive your right by going to the "Recommenders & FERPA" tab in the school-specific application questions for each school to which you are applying (when you complete this for one school, you complete it for all of them).

Have another question about letters of recommendation? Ask in the comments or shoot me an email. Stay tuned, and stay in touch!

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