How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation

The letters of recommendation are a way for admissions officers to get to know you through the eyes of another person. In a sense, your recommender is attesting to your academic skill and personality traits among what else might come up in the letter. When choosing who to ask for your letter, it’s important to consider how well they know you and in what capacity. The sincerer a relationship you have with a person, the better the letter will be. When I worked as an admissions officer, they letters that stood out the most were by teachers who had gotten to know the students quite well and could speak to not only how there were in the classroom but who there were as a person. Below I detail how to choose who to ask for a letter of recommendation, as well as some common etiquette to help the entire process go smoothly for everyone.

Who to Ask?

You have two required letters of recommendation: One from a core subject teacher and one from your high school counselor.

The letter from your high school counselor, will in a sense, take care of itself. You will need to approach them and still ask them for the letter and provide them with some additional information, which I’ll detail later, however, you won’t necessarily have to worry about the choice of who to ask. This letter from your high school counselor will help to put you in context with your high school. They can highlight how you perform comparatively, how involved you are, what classes you are taking, etc.

The letter from your core subject teacher, however, allows you more options. There is no one set rule of who you might ask, however, I generally offer a couple guidelines for who to choose. For one, if you know what major you are applying to, it could be helpful to have a letter of recommendation writer of that subject. That way, they might be able to speak to your performance and passion in that particular area. It could help to round out that particular aspect of your application to secure your proficiency and interest.

That said, the letter from a teacher does not have to be of the subject you are applying to. That specification is not stated anywhere on the application. What I find to be perhaps more important is finding a dynamic teacher, someone who knows you better or perhaps knows you in multiple capacities. There might be overlap with your subject of interest, but maybe not, and that’s okay. Sometimes you’ll have a teacher who you just click with. Perhaps you go to their class early just for conversation. They’ve gotten to know you, your personality, your aspiration, etc., beyond the classroom. Letters written by these teachers are 100% more personally written and interesting. They’re able to truly speak on your behalf and their impression of you.

Another thing that might happen is that you know a teacher from multiple capacities. For instance, when I was applying I had someone who was an English teacher but also the Theatre Director and Literary Magazine Sponsor. He knew me not only for my work in the classroom, but who I was as a leader and teammate within these clubs. He could speak to not only my academic work, but to who I was within my high school community. If you have a teacher who you know in these dynamic, multiple capacities, it gives them more material to write to give you a stellar, specific letter of recommendation.

As a note, these circumstances may occur differently for different people. To boil it down, consider whose class you’ve performed well in and if there is a teacher who knows you well in and/or outside the classroom.

After these two required letters of recommendation, you have the option to submit additional letters of recommendation. There are certain circumstances where this can be greatly beneficial, like if your recommender provides new perspective and insight that the first does not. However, just having two of the same subject teachers write two letters can be a bit redundant and isn’t necessary. It can feel like more is more, but honestly, more is only more if they are offering new information, not repeating a rather similar narrative. Only add additional letters of recommendation if it fits a unique criterion.

If you instance, you want two teachers to write letters of recommendation, you should have a good reason why. Perhaps one is within your major while the other knows you well because you’ve been involved with a club since freshman year. To me, this would be a good example of when to have two teachers write letters. Your relationship to them is different enough and would highlight different, but relevant information.

Often other letters of recommendation might come from someone who is not your high school teacher. These tend to work well if you did an internship or research within someone and they got to know you. This would be a letter that showcases you and your work outside the classroom which would give them new information about these different situations. If you have a professor you worked with over the summer write a letter on your behalf about how you showed up with a positive attitude and helped around the lab, it would offer insight on how you do applied work and how you’re mature and academically ready to step into the college environment.

Not everyone has more than two letters of recommendation. Two is truly enough. You should only have more if you feel you have an excellent reason, not because you want to overload your application. Less can be more, especially if those you offer are from strong recommenders. Three is really the most letters you should have. You should absolutely not go beyond four — then you should assess why you’re asking people and what is necessary for what the application requires.

When to Ask?

As far as when to ask, the soon, the better. There are only so many teachers in a high school, and lots of other students will be asking them for letters of recommendation. Of course, they are used to this, as it happens every year, however giving them notice is curious and shows that you are thinking of them as you ask this favor.

Another reason to ask sooner rather than later, especially with a teacher you really want to write you letter of recommendation, is they might have a cap on how many letters they are willing to write or how tight to the deadline they are willing to pull one together. Most teachers, dare I say all, do not want to have it sprung on them last minute. Asking them within the first couple weeks of school makes sure that your letter is on their to-do list and that you give the ample time to write a good, thoughtful letter of recommendation. Even if you wait to give them some of the information I’ll provide below, it is good to ask in advance and have your answer.

What to Provide?

It is good to give your letter of recommendation writers a bit of information that they can pull from as they write your letter. They know you, but they may not know all you do or your intentions for study. Giving them this information concisely can help them to write a letter of recommendation that better puts your ambitions and accomplishments into context with what they might already want to say.

Again, this should all be brief. They don’t need or want to read a whole essay, but providing these bits of information can be helpful. You might also ask them specifically if there is anything they might appreciate from you to help them write the letter, because in the end, they are doing you a favor.

Provide them with your intended major, if you know it. You might also offer a one sentence statement on why you want to enter this major. If you are undecided, you can note this as well, but if you have inclinations for what you might want to study more broadly, you can offer this.

Give them your school list. You don’t need to do any write up about the schools, but simply lettering them know where you’re applying can give them more context.

Show them your resume. You can even pull this directly from the activities list you’ll be submitting on your Common Application. This is incredibly helpful because they’ll be able to see all that you’ve been involved with at high school. They’ll be able to see that your interest in English is developing through theatre, magazines, the school newspaper, and volunteering activities. It may or may not enter your letter explicitly, depending on what they wish to write, however it helps to solidify for them as well that you are seeking out what resources and opportunities you can to get to where you want to go and they can be even more confident in what they write for you.

Give them the deadlines upfront. To avoid any clamoring for your letter last minute, be sure to state explicitly when your first deadline for applications is due so they know when to have your letter uploaded. That way, they can also plan as needed around additional letters they might need to be writing, and they can prioritize accordingly.

After you ask for the letter of recommendation, provide them with information, and send them the link to write their letter, this part of the application will be complete. Follow up as needed to politely remind them of deadlines if the letter has not been uploaded yet.

These tips should help you ask for your letters of recommendation with confidence! Teachers are generally excited to help students get to the next step of their academic journey and the easier you make the process for them, the happier they’ll be. Being considerate of their time and providing them information to help with the letter writing process are key to making this part of the application go smoothly.