If you’re an 11th grader and you want to go about the college application process properly, then yes, you should be thinking about teacher rec letters right now. In fact, some high school guidance offices require that students ask teachers for rec letters prior to the end of the school year, and some of those rec letters are written before teachers even leave for the summer. In other cases, an early ask gives the teacher something to think about over the summer (you!), before they put words on a page in August or September.
For colleges that require them, teacher rec letters can be an important piece that admissions counselors consider, one that can provide a boost when your file is being evaluated. Or, they can have very little impact.
In the competitive world of college admissions, I’ll take the boost.
So what makes a good rec letter, and how do I ensure that my teacher writes one that will make a difference and provide a boost?
A good rec letter includes very specific examples that may highlight a student’s academic commitment, intellectual curiosity, or perhaps a resilience and grit in the face of adversity. It’s not enough to say that “Johnny is intellectually curious”; the strong rec letter gives a specific example from a real experience, witnessed by the teacher, that showcases this commitment/curiosity/resilience.
While students cannot “ensure” that a teacher writes a good rec letter (the power lies with the teacher), it is possible to help your teacher out, which in most cases will be welcomed by said teacher. When asking a teacher for this favor (and it should be treated as a favor rather than an entitlement), remind them why you are specifically asking them (e.g. your love for, or enjoyment of their class, commitment to certain academic pursuits, passion for particular subjects, demonstration of resilience and grit), and try to recall specific examples to feed your teachers. It’s the specific examples that make the rec letter stand out.
To be very clear, this does NOT mean that students should write the rec letter themselves and have the teacher sign it. I’ve seen this idea suggested by some teachers, and it is absolutely the wrong approach for any student or teacher to take. If your teacher suggests this, you’ll need to quickly move on and ask another teacher.
When asking teachers, it’s a good idea to have two requests as some colleges will require two, and be sure to consider core subject teachers only (English, Science, Social Studies, Math, Foreign Language). You may also consider a Computer Science teacher. With rare exceptions, do NOT ask teachers of elective subjects (art, band, theater, debate, culinary, health/PE, etc.). Some colleges do allow students to submit recommendations from elective teachers or even coaches, employers, mentors or others, but this is only in addition to core rec letters, not instead of them.
We discuss rec letters, essays, the Common App, and a whole host of other related topics in our College Application Program. We’re already in the middle of Session I, and our students are now writing their rough draft essays.
Session II starts June 30 and will last for 5 weeks, Space is still available (we do expect to fill up), and you can get more information and register here.
Check out what a recent student wrote to Carla and me about our program:
I couldn’t thank you enough for your meaningful help and advice. I’m really thankful for my college application experience not only because it was well-managed, but also that I learned how to write a compelling and truly unique essay. The advice you gave me for writing essays has been applied far beyond just college apps; it helped me succeed in AP Lang and sharpen my edge in communication. Having you as my college advisors was such a great experience. It was a pleasure to work with you and to learn from you.
-Mauricio T., attending Northeastern University in Fall 2021
Your child can approach the college application experience with similar support. If you want a comprehensive college guidance program for your child, then let’s get connected.