Letters of Recommendation, Part 2: Frequently Asked Questions

The first part of this post gives you details about how and why colleges ask for letters of recommendation as part of your college application process.

How many letters of recommendation should I have?

Not all colleges require letters of recommendation.  Colleges also vary in the number and type of recommendation.  In general, the more selective colleges ask for letters of recommendation, which help them see you as a human being and contributing member of the classroom and the broader community.  You should check to see how many recommendation letters each college on your list requires.  Most colleges will ask for one-two teacher recommendations, but many colleges will read more if you submit them.  Most schools also ask for a recommendation from your school counselor.  Occasionally, some colleges may ask for a letter from a teacher in a specific subject.

Which Teachers Should I Ask For a Letter of Recommendation?

Ideally, you’ll ask a teacher who knows you fairly well and can speak positively about you, and ideally, you should ask teachers you had in 11th grade.  You may ask a senior year teacher.  Colleges prefer to hear from teachers who know your recent work, so tenth grade teachers are not the best, because it’s been a full academic year plus since they’ve had you in their class. 

 
Focus first on your academic subject teachers – math, English, science, history/social science, and foreign language.  However, if you’re planning to study or major in a subject like art or music, you should ask a teacher who knows your work in one of these areas.

If you’re involved on your high school campus, you might try to ask a teacher who you had for a class AND who was your advisor for a club – this way, they can speak about your character and your intellect, both inside and outside the classroom.

Some people say you should ask teachers you had for differing academic content areas – one in math/science and one in English/humanities to get a feel for you from different academic perspectives.  However, if you think the two teachers who would write the absolute best letters for you come from similar courses, that’s who you should ask!  If you only need one letter, and you are interested in the STEM fields, you should ask a science or math teacher.

Often students think they should ask their favorite teacher or the teacher who gave them an A in their class.  This may not always be the case.  A teacher’s experience with a student who struggled to earn a B – or with one who worked hard to raise a C to a B – provides insight into their strength of character and intellectual perseverance.

COVID-CAVEAT

Colleges typically prefer letters from teachers students had during their junior year.  Students mature and develop significantly between sophomore and junior year and colleges want to know about who the student is “now.”  Some students may not have had the chance to get to know their junior year teachers in a remote learning environment. In this case, we recommend asking the teacher(s) who will write the best letter.

My family knows someone famous/on the Board of a college/well-connected.  Should we ask them to write one of my letters of recommendation?

A letter of recommendation from a person of status, such as a celebrity or elected official, will only benefit you if they know you well.  Letters from alumni generally only carry weight if that person is well-known to the college, and even then, they need to actually know you beyond being the daughter of my business partner’s brother.

When considering whom to ask – ask yourself, “Does this person add new information to my application, giving admission readers additional insight about my accomplishments as a learner, community member, teammate, employee, musician, volunteer?”

When should I ask for letters of recommendation?

Approach your teachers at the end of your junior year.  This gives you time to assemble any specific materials (e.g., a writing sample, resume, etc.) your teacher(s) would like to have, and learn how they would prefer to move forward.  Many high schools have forms students must complete to formally request your letters of recommendation. Check your school’s college and career website or ask your school counselor for this information.

You can wait until the fall to ask, but you should always give your teachers and counselors at least four weeks’ notice before your letters need to be submitted.

How should I ask for letters of recommendation?

Normally, we advise students to ask in person.  If that’s not possible, sign up for an office hours call.  An email request would be the last option, as it’s the least personal.  

When you ask for a recommendation letter, you should ask if the teacher would be willing to write you a “positive” letter of recommendation.  Give them the opportunity to decline; there could be many reasons they would say no.  If this happens, don’t take it personally!  Teachers have a lot on their plates and some are inundated with requests; some simply may not have the time.  Some may just feel they don’t know you well enough.  Simply thank the teacher for their time and move on to asking another teacher.

If the teacher accepts, you should make the process as easy as possible and provide the following:

  • the deadlines the letters are needed by (the college application deadline)
  • a list of the colleges you are applying to
  • submission guidelines or materials (see below)
  • a student summary (how to build a glowing brag sheet here; brag sheet template here)

If you’re requesting your letters of recommendation in the spring, and your college list isn’t finalized yet, you can provide the earliest likely deadline, a tentative list and indicate that you’ll follow up in the fall or via email over the summer. 

How do teachers and counselors actually submit their letters of recommendation?

The majority of letters of recommendation are submitted online via the Common Application or Coalition application.  If your high school uses the college planning program Naviance, teacher and counselor letters are uploaded to that platform, which connects to the Common App. 

For colleges who do not use the Common Application, students should check each college’s website for instructions on how to send letters of recommendation.  If you need actual paper copies mailed (this is rare!), you should provide pre-addressed and stamped envelopes.

In this short video, we walk you through how to waive your FERPA rights (what’s that?), what you’ll need to do to connect your Naviance to your Common App, and how to invite Other Recommenders in the Common App.  

Will I get to read my teacher and/or counselor letters of recommendation?

Nope!  You’ll be waiving your right to read your letters of recommendation.  It’s important for your recommenders to know that you won’t be able to review their letters, so they know they can be 100% honest in their evaluation of you.  This is why it’s important to ask teachers you KNOW will write strong and supportive letters on your behalf!

Following Up

Once recommenders have agreed to write your letter, you should provide the teacher/counselor with the necessary materials as soon as possible and thank them.

Two weeks before the recommendation due date, reach out and thank the teacher in advance for completing the letter, which is due on (remind them of the date). Ask if they need any additional information. 

You should be able to check the submission status either in your Naviance account, or the Common App, or the college’s application portal.  If you notice that your teacher hasn’t submitted the letter yet, you can send a friendly reminder note — “I wanted to let you know that I submitted my application to XXXX University.  Thanks again for writing my letter of recommendation.”

Within a week of the teacher submitting the letter of recommendation, you should send them a thank you note (handwritten is always nice) or email.

Recommendation letters are just one part of your college application, but they provide critical context and give admission readers insight into why you would be a good fit and addition to the college community.


Evelyn Jerome-Alexander is the founder of Magellan College Counseling.  She holds a Bachelor’s degree from Johns Hopkins, a Master’s degree from George Washington University, and a Certificate in College Counseling (with distinction) from UCLA.  Evelyn was asked in 2019 to serve as an instructor for UC Berkeley’s online College Admissions Advising courses and is a member of IECA (professional member), HECA and WACAC.

Michelle Silbernagel, who works with Evelyn at Magellan, has a Master’s in sociology and worked in research, marketing, writing, and editing, as well as in higher education as the Director of Research and Planning at Seattle Community Colleges District Office, before she joined the college counseling community.. Read more about Michelle here.

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