Tips for Getting Good, Detailed Recommendation Letters

By Patricia Gorden Neill - March 26th, 2013

As you prepare the materials you’ll need for an effective college application, one of the items required for nearly every college is recommendation letters. A college may ask for two to three letters and some colleges specify from whom they want the letters, usually teachers in one of the core academic disciplines such as English or math, and your school’s guidance or college counselor. Check what each college requires for all of the colleges you will be applying to. Do this early on to minimize the risk of forgetting something.

can’t emphasize enough the need to get organized when you’re applying to college. Each college wants specific items from you and they want them on a certain date. If you’re not organized, you’re likely to overlook one or two items or miss important deadlines, which could mean you will not be accepted. Do yourself a big favor and get organized from the beginning. You will be heartily glad you did.

Asking teachers for a letter of recommendation might make you nervous. You’re asking a busy adult to do you a favor and you feel slightly intimidated. There’s no need to be afraid, however. Your teachers are used to writing recommendation letters for students applying to college. If they feel they know you well enough, chances are they’ll be happy to do it for you. High school teachers want the best for their students, and a student’s success in college and in life reflects well on them. Keep in mind that throughout your life and career, you’ll also be asked to write in behalf of someone else. It’s a normal part of adulthood and most people are happy to oblige.

How you ask for letters of recommendation is important. College admission officers place a lot of significance on these letters, and it is critical that you get the best letters possible. Admission .people want hear about you academically, your strengths and intellectual growth, and they want to gain insight into your character, how you act in the classroom and your passion for various subjects. A good, well-written recommendation from your English teacher may convey a vivid sense of you both as a student and as an individual with character and curiosity.

Here are some tips on how to go about asking for and receiving the essential letters of recommendation:

Understand Your School’s Procedure

Your high school probably has a specific procedure for recommendation letters from teachers and counselors. You need to find out what that procedure is before you begin. Do teachers place the letters in your file, and the school sends them along with your transcript and school report? Do letters get sent directly to the college from the teacher? Does your school use a standard form for letters of recommendation? Ask at the school office about the specific procedure before you start asking teachers for the letters.

Decide Who to Ask

A teacher who knows you fairly well, with whom you’ve taken at least one class and maybe more and one with whom you get on well is a good choice. It doesn’t have to be your favorite teacher. Ask your math teacher if you had to struggle with some math concepts, but did so successfully and received good grades. Ask a teacher in one of the core academic disciplines such as science, math, social studies, English or foreign language. If a college asks for certain teachers, ask that teacher.

Ask Politely, In Person

Requesting a recommendation letter shouldn’t be left to email or the phone. Meet with your teacher after school, tell her about the colleges you’d like to go to, what you’re thinking of studying there and why. Your conversation doesn’t need to be long or overly detailed, but you want to ask politely. Mention the class or classes you’ve taken with her, and why you enjoyed them. Mention some things you remember from the class, which will help them to remember it as well. Be friendly and open, and explain why you’re asking them in particular—“Ms. Kiefer, I learned a lot about history from you, and I’m excited about taking more history classes at college. I feel you know me better than my other teachers. I was wondering if you would write a letter of recommendation for me.” If your teacher feels she doesn’t know you well enough, you’ve given her a gentle way out, and she’ll appreciate it. Tell them to contact you if they think they need any other details or information from you.

Make it Easy for Your Teacher and Counselor

The easier you make it for your teacher to write these important letters in your behalf, the better your chances for getting strong, detailed and dynamic letters. Some teachers may be asked to write dozens of letters for various students, so do your homework beforehand and make your letter an enjoyable and easy process for them. They’ll appreciate your effort, which will be reflected in the letter they write for you.

Give Them Enough Time

A well-crafted letter of recommendation takes time to create. Ask your teacher and counselor at least a month or two before the letter is due. Waiting until the last minute will not work in this situation. Even if they agree to write the letter for you, it will be rushed and that will show in the letter. This is one of the reasons it is extremely important for you to be organized, slipping up anywhere along the way jeopardizes your opportunity to get into the college of your choice. Ask your teachers at the end of your junior year or at the very beginning of your senior year. Giving your teacher enough time shows your courtesy and maturity.

Give the Letter Writers What They’ll Need

Your chemistry teacher knows how you are in his classroom. He might not know much of anything else about you though. Prepare a folder for each teacher or counselor that contains the information about you they’ll need. Put together a brief resume with your high school classes listed, your extracurricular activities, your job if you have one and whatever other personal background you think they might need. The admissions office likes to see details and examples in recommendation letters. Give your teacher or counselor the information they need for a compelling letter. You don’t need a list of your activities from kindergarten on, but give them enough to do the job right. Put your contact info on your resume with home address and phone number.

In the folder, put in any forms they might need, a list of the colleges you will be applying to, the college’s deadline for receiving the letters and an addressed and stamped envelope for the letter.

Waive Your Right to Read the Letter

When you were deciding which teacher to ask, you picked a teacher you liked. Now trust them to write you a good letter. If they know that you and your parents will be reading the letter, they won’t be as objective and honest as they could be. Admissions personnel also prefer confidential letters. A teacher who has seen your academic weaknesses and your improvement through plain hard work can feel free to express that with a confidential letter. He’ll focus on your effort to improve far more than the weakness. Admissions people like to see personal development and growth; giving your teacher that ease of confidentiality allows them to go to bat for you in the best possible way. Rather than reading a list of superlatives about your high school career, admissions officials will get a far better sense of who you are with an honest letter.

Say Thank You

After the letter is sent off, show your maturity and courtesy by sending a thoughtful thank you note, written on a nice card. Teachers are people and they like being thanked as much as anyone. So be sure not to neglect saying thank you. If you are accepted, remember that one of the things that got you in the door was a teacher’s recommendation letter. If you really want to show your gratitude, share your success and acceptance letter with them. Write them a few notes once you’re at college telling them how much you love it and thank them again. That will truly make their day.

In summary, following the steps outlined above should secure you good letters of recommendation. Get organized from the beginning, and the entire process becomes easier. Give your teacher enough time and trust to write you an emphatic, detailed letter will make you stand out to the admissions committee as someone they will want at their college.

About the Author

Patricia Gorden NeillPatricia Gorden Neill edited medical and scholarly journals for over 20 years in the ivy-covered halls of the University of Rochester. She is a freelance writer, often covering higher education and the concerns of college age students, and is regularly published on a variety of websites.