So much more goes into the college application than simply grades and test scores; recommendation letters from teachers can go a long way towards putting your best foot forward. But getting a great recommendation requires more than simply asking your favorite teacher for a favor; it requires thoughtful preparation and good follow-up. (College Coach shares why teacher recs are important and whom to ask in previous blogs).
When to ask
At a minimum, you should ask for a recommendation letter six weeks in advance of deadlines. Ideally, this request can be made at the end of junior year—many of my teacher friends like to write some of these letters over the summer, to ease their fall workload. Just remember that your favorite teachers are likely writing letters for lots of your classmates, and they’ll appreciate the advanced notice.
How to ask
Be polite. Respect the time and energy you’re requesting of your teacher. And do it IN PERSON! Find a time after school or during lunch (not squeezed in before the bell rings) to catch your teacher in private. Then explain why you think he has valuable insight into your intellectual drive and that you’d be honored to have him write a recommendation letter on your behalf. If he agrees, ask what information you can share to help him write that letter.
Provide a brag sheet
Many schools and teachers have a specific form, called a “brag sheet,” that solicits personal info about students seeking recommendation letters. Based on your teacher’s stated preferences or your school’s standard practice, prepare a brag sheet that not only references your activities and accomplishments, but more importantly reflects on your growth and strengths in this specific class. Reflecting on the yearlong course, what are you most proud of? What prompted the toughest challenges, and how did you react? What project was a personal favorite, and why? How do you describe your contributions to the class, and what specific examples support that contribution? This is your chance to provide direct fodder for the content of the recommendation. And make sure you prioritize academic reflection over extracurricular detail!
Waive your rights
If you are given the opportunity to officially waive your rights to see these recommendation letters, such as on the Common App recommendation form, you should do so. Colleges want to ensure that teachers can speak openly, without censorship by students or parents. Without that waiver, colleges may wonder what info you are trying to monitor, and jump to negative conclusions.
Finally, when the stress of application season dies down, make sure you take the time to write a thank-you letter to the teachers and counselors who advocated for you during this process. And in the spring, don’t forget to update them on your plans for the next year. A little appreciation goes a long way!