By Karen Miller on April 19, 2018
Imagine that you are a dedicated high school teacher, one who cares about the students, makes personal connections, and meticulously prepares every lesson. Now imagine being that teacher during the fall semester, when you are asked to write in excess of 100 students’ letters of recommendation. Because of the type of relationship that you have fostered with your students, they feel that you know them best. Now, said dedicated teacher feels obligated not only to write the letters for the students but also to personalize those letters and make each one outstanding. Without the appropriate amount of information about each student, it might become difficult for the teacher to come up with 100 unique and interesting letters that best exemplify each individual student. Knowing how important letters of recommendation have become in the admission process, this teacher is stressed and crunched for time. So what can be done on the part of the student to avoid this situation?When Should I Ask?
Students can do several things to avoid this situation, which will in turn help teachers write stronger and more sincere letters of recommendation. First, many students wait until the fall of their senior year to request letters of recommendations; however, it’s best to ask teachers in the spring of junior year. Then, the teachers have plenty of time, including the summer, to make the letter both strong and sincere.
Since teachers often become inundated with letters of recommendation requests in the fall, some may put a limit on the number they will write, which is another good incentive to ask in the spring. In addition, it’s perfectly acceptable for a teacher to decline your request. While this rejection might hurt, in the end, you are better off having a teacher decline your request than write a letter that is not strong. So, take careful consideration when asking your teachers, which brings us to the next section.
Who Should I Ask?
Typically, students ask their junior year teachers, since they are either still in their class or have just finished that class. However, regardless of the year in which you had a teacher, it’s most important to ask a teacher who will feel comfortable writing a solid recommendation about you.
For example, if you have always been a strong student and have done well in the majority of your classes, it might be difficult to decide who to pick solely based on how you performed academically in that class. Instead, think of the class in which you participated in and contributed to the discussion, one in which you built a strong relationship with the teacher by advocating for yourself and asking for help or clarification when needed, or one in which you went out of your way to help others. You want a teacher who can speak to your work ethic, your concern for your grades, and your ability to seek help when needed and help others who need it.
In addition, if you have declared a specific major or plan on choosing a specific major, it’s wise to ask a teacher in that course of study, as long as you have also developed a strong relationship with them. Now, if you tend to be more on the quiet side, it’s not too late to try to be proactive. Remember, teachers are there to help, and most of them thoroughly enjoy getting to know you.
There may be times when a student feels that his or her teachers might not know them as well as another adult who could speak better on his or her behalf. While the students should still have the teacher and counselor send in their recommendations, William R. Fitzsimmons, the Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Harvard College explains, these students “might consider asking others who know them well, including supervisors of extracurricular activities, employers, representatives from community organizations, clergy, or summer program coordinators to send an additional recommendation...But it is wise to refrain from sending large numbers of extra recommendations or mounting a letter-writing campaign, especially if the school has already written effectively.” In addition, when considering who to ask, Fitzsimmons clarifies that “the value of an additional letter or two depends on how well the person knows you, not the person’s profession or who he or she might be.”
How Do I Ask?
Keep in mind that since you are asking someone to speak on your behalf and to dedicate a substantial amount of time to do so, you should ask for this recommendation in person. Prepscholar gives some excellent advice:
Depending on your teacher's schedule and school culture, it may be appropriate to email your teacher to set up an appointment or meeting. Asking for a letter of recommendation solely over email could be interpreted as impersonal, distant, and less mature, an impression you don't want to make in the mind of a recommender.
I also wouldn't recommend asking during class time, but instead find time during a free period, after school, or whenever the teacher has free time to meet. The request may be short, but you still want to create space in case your teacher wants to further discuss your plans.
What Do I Provide?
The College Board does an excellent job of explaining the five items to provide to each of your recommenders. It’s wise to print out these forms and put them in a folder with a thank you included. (And, yes, this thank you is in addition to the one you will write after the recommenders have submitted your letters.)
- A completed student information form (such as the one attached here!)
- An "Interaction Sheet" on which the student describes past events or interactions from the time in the teacher's class. This will help the teacher recall specific characteristics of and anecdotes about the student.
- Assignment samples from the time the student was in the teacher's class. Again, this will help the teacher remember the student.A brief synopsis of the student's goals and interests.
- A list of colleges the student will be applying to, along with deadlines and any appropriate forms.
In addition to the list of colleges, it’s best for students to explain to teachers how and where to submit their letters. For example, if your school uses SCOIR, the college guidance system, then all of the teachers and guidance counselors would upload and submit their letters in SCOIR. In SCOIR, you would “request” a letter of recommendation through the system. However, this request does NOT replace all of the strategies listed above. You should first talk with the teacher, provide them with the materials above, and then formally request a letter of recommendation through the SCOIR system. These letters then become part of your application packet that is submitted by the guidance counselors to the colleges. If your school does not use SCOIR just yet, then let the teachers know which application you are using, such as the Common Application, which also allows teachers to send their recommendations directly through the website. If any colleges still require teachers to send their letters in the mail, then provide the teachers with a stamped and addressed envelope for each school that still wants them in the snail mail.
How Should I Follow Up?
You should always send each person who has written a letter on your behalf a hand-written thank you note, letting them know how much you appreciate both the time and effort that it took to write the letter.
If a teacher hasn’t yet written the letter and it’s getting close to the deadline, take a few minutes to stop by his or her classroom to ask if there is anything else that they might need in order to finish the letter or to see if you can help in any way. At this brief meeting, it’s also a good idea to remind them of the approaching deadline. As you can probably assume, this does NOT mean that you can barge into the classroom in a ball of stress and start begging for your recommendation. Remember, this teacher is writing your letter of recommendation, and you want it to be a positive and supportive letter. Be kind, be appreciative, and be understanding.
How Important are Letters of Recommendation?
Admission committees put varying degrees of importance on the letters of recommendation; however, according to NACAC’s 2017 State of College Admissions report, the majority of schools still place some value on them.
While the importance of letters of recommendation vary from college to college, Fitzsimmons, the Dean at Harvard, explains in his New York Times series “The Choice” that “Recommendations from secondary school teachers and counselors are extremely important at Harvard and at many other colleges, particularly those with selective admissions processes...Recommendations can help us to see well beyond test scores and grades and other credentials and can illuminate such personal qualities as character and leadership as well as intellectual curiosity, creativity, and love of learning.”
As a result, put the time in on your end to help your teachers write the best letter for you. Give them ample time in which to write them and provide them with detailed information about you. By answering the questions on this student information form, you will help the teachers better understand you and also remember your time in class together. Finally, if you are an underclassman, begin building those relationships with your teachers now so that you can make your high school years more memorable for you and for your teachers!