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In this article, a CollegeAdvisor.com Admissions Expert shares tips on how to build solid relationships with teachers to obtain great letters of recommendation for college. For more guidance on the college application process, sign up for a monthly plan to work with an admissions coach 1-on-1.
Recommendation letters are one of the most underrated components of the college application. While extracurriculars, test scores, and academics show a student’s objective attributes, recommendation letters—along with essays—help colleges understand an applicant’s character.
Many students share the same test scores, extracurriculars, and academic achievements, so glowing recommendations can really help you stand out from your peers. However, you can’t “cram” a strong recommendation in your freshman fall. Instead, these recommendations stem from relationships that you should begin building as early as your freshman year of high school.
College requirements for recommendation letters
Most schools will ask for at least three recommendations: one from your guidance counselor, and two from teachers in core academic subjects. Usually, these will be teachers who have taught you in your junior and/or senior year. Some schools will also accept an optional supplemental recommendation, which can be from anyone who offers a different perspective from the previous three: an athletic coach, a volunteer director, a direct supervisor, etc.
Each recommendation should complement the others. While your guidance counselor will provide insight about your achievements and growth, your teachers will speak about your intellectual curiosity, your collaborative nature, or your diligence.
Steps to ensure glowing recommendation letters
In 9th, 10th, and 11th grades:
These are the critical years when you will develop relationships with your recommenders.
The most important advice here is quite obvious, yet many students fail to follow it: treat your teachers (all of them, not just your recommenders) with humanity. Ask thoughtful questions in class, and thank them when they answer. Show genuine interest in their subjects, volunteer to help clean up, thank them after class, and raise your hand often.
Most importantly, emphasize your intellectual curiosity. Half the applicant pool for competitive schools will comprise of people with good scores and high GPAs. Colleges look for students who value learning for learning’s sake: the type of people who ask questions about content beyond the slides, who can think creatively, and who can make even the teacher think twice about a question.
When the opportunity arises, engage with your teachers outside of class as well. For example, if you’re passionate about writing, seek feedback from your English Lit teacher and share the news with them when you win a writing award.
Most importantly, do all of this because you care. Don’t do it because you want to get a good recommendation—the insincerity will show. At the core of it all, remember that your high school teachers are humans as well. They do not teach for the pay or the prestige. Instead, they teach because they want to teach, and it can make all the difference when students show they care.
In 11th and 12th grade:
At this point, you’ve hopefully identified which teachers you will ask to write your recommendation letters. If you haven’t already, ask your teachers as early as possible (preferably in junior spring, but early senior fall at the latest). This allows teacher to plan their letters and allocate their time throughout the semester. It will also give you time to remind your teachers to submit their letters as deadlines approach.
Once you’ve received confirmation that they will write your recommendation, it is sometimes helpful to provide each teacher with a “brag sheet” of sorts—something akin to a resume that can guide your teacher in what to say.
For your guidance counselor, this may be an actual resume, something that highlights your achievements and reminds them of what matters to you.
With your teachers, this may be an abbreviated resume (abbreviated since you don’t want them to repeat what your guidance counselor says) along with a list of stories or projects your teacher might want to highlight. For example, if you designed a new class experiment and your physics teacher uses it in all future classes, you should gently remind them of your role in setting it up. Similarly, if you have won awards in this teacher’s domain, you may want to let them know (for example, tell your calculus teacher if you win a math competition).
In short, remember that teachers will write recommendation letters for many students. No matter your relationship, they may not remember all the details that you want them to emphasize. It’s okay (and strongly encouraged) to provide them with a few “nudges” to give them ideas of what they should write about. Not only does this make writing recommendations easier and less time-consuming for teachers, but it also helps colleges receive more specific and compelling stories.
Thanking Your Recommenders
Once your applications are submitted, remember to show your gratitude. It’s not uncommon to provide them with small tokens of appreciation or Christmas gifts, or once you matriculate, to give them school merchandise.
Giving a gift may not be possible for everyone, so in the end, how you show appreciation is up to you. Just remember that teachers spend their personal time writing you a recommendation letter, and it can often have a sizable impact on where you end up.
This informational essay on recommendation letters was written by an advisor at CollegeAdvisor.com. If you want to get help with your college applications from a CollegeAdvisor.com Admissions Expert, register with CollegeAdvisor.com today.