College letters of recommendation: They're awkward to ask for. But you kind of really need to.

How to Ask for a College Letter of Recommendation

After a year of remote learning due to COVID-19, you may feel a little out of practice in terms of talking to teachers and peers in person. (It’s not just you. We’re all socially awkward now.) Even before the pandemic, many students felt at least a little awkward around their teachers and peers. So the idea of asking for a college letter of recommendation can be unpleasant at best, and terrifying at worst.

How do you go about asking for and receiving this crucial component of your application?

Read on for:

    • recommendation requirements
    • who you should ask for a college letter of recommendation
    • how to make the ask
    • the recommendation submission process
    • how to make sure your letter of rec showcases who you are as a student and person
    • what to do if you’re approaching an application deadline without all your needed materials
    • what to do if you can’t think of a single person qualified to write the letter

We also left a huge bonus tip at the end of the article that could shape the rest of your life, so stick around.

Related: A great letter of recommendation can help you get into college with a low GPA.

Before asking anyone for anything — what are the submission requirements?

applicant requirements

Letter of recommendation submission requirements vary by school and by application type.

Types of Applicants Include:

  • First-year applicants: Most postsecondary institutions place high school graduates, GED recipients, and homeschooled graduates under this umbrella term.
  • Transfer applicants: individuals who have completed some postsecondary schooling at another institution (this does not include high school graduates who participated in dual enrollment programs)
  • International applicants: individuals graduating or transferring from institutions outside the U.S.
  • Veteran applicants: veterans are either counted as transfer applicants with the potential to apply military activity/programming towards graduation requirements; or, they are placed in another category altogether

Most first year applicants can get letters of recommendation from high school principals, teachers, counselors, and other mentors/leaders.

Transfer applicants usually require at least one letter of recommendation from a professor at the institution they’re transferring from.

Some colleges have specific application requirements depending on what school within the college or university they plan on attending. For example, applicants who apply to a music school within a larger institution have different requirements than other applicants. They may have to get letters of recommendation from artistic teachers to complete their application.

Other colleges use academic evaluation forms. These are forms with a predefined template of questions, rating systems, and space for comments. They are typically issued by the school you are applying to (see example academic evaluation form).

Number of Letters

Different institutions require more letters of recommendation than others.

For example, Harvard asks for two teacher recommendations in different academic subjects. But the University of Michigan asks for a letter of recommendation from one core academic teacher or other non-relative who can speak directly to the student’s academic aptitude, potential, and classroom performance.

Type of Recommender

Most institutions that require a letter of recommendation specify what kind of letters they want to see. 

There are certain key terms that tell you what kind of person to ask:

  • Core academic teacher: teachers from the “big four” subjects: English, social studies, science, and math
  • Academic subject teacher: teachers that don’t have to be strictly in the “big four”; but in general, don’t ask someone who teaches electives (e.g. art) to write your letter
  • Counselor: school guidance counselors
  • Artistic teacher: teachers in any artistic program, even if it’s outside the normal bounds of the school day (e.g. private teachers, after school program teachers)

Who should you ask for a college letter of recommendation?

Venn diagram that details who to ask for a college letter of recommendation.

Find someone who knows you well, of course.

It’s probably most important to find someone who can really portray who you are (so long as they fit recommender type requirements.) 

You want someone who can attest to your abilities as a student. 

Ideally, they can also convey key character traits: drive to succeed, compassion for others, organizational skills — “soft factors” that you just can’t show through “hard factors” like grades and test scores.

Note: Family members are an absolute last resort for letters of recommendation — which makes sense. They’re not objective, and they’re going to hype you up no matter what.

Ask someone from a class or activity you've recently participated in.

Teachers from your upper classes (junior and senior year) are ideal candidates for recommenders.

Admissions officers know that students change over time. They’re admitting you as you are now, not the person you were freshman year.

In fact, some admissions officers may get a little suspicious if you only include letters of recommendations from lower level classes (if you have to send more than one letter, of course.) They may wonder why you don’t have any relationships with teachers now.

Consider someone you've known for a long time.

Admissions officers want to know who you are now. But they also appreciate a letter of recommendation that shows both your growth and the fact that you can grow. 

If possible, find teachers who you have taken multiple classes with, or mentors/extracurricular leaders that you’ve known for years.

You can also ask an employer for a letter of recommendation, if you have the option to give in multiple types of recommendations, or the option to send in additional letters of recommendation.

Note: If a school does not explicitly say you can send optional letters of recommendation, don’t. Follow the school’s exact guidelines.

Ask a variety of people to write your letters.

If you can send in multiple letters of recommendation, get letters from instructors in different areas of your life. Three letters of recommendation from math teachers doesn’t show you capabilities in other subjects or who you are as a person.

Recommendations from a variety of people will reflect who you are on a holistic level.

Find someone in the field you want to go into.

Their letter will demonstrate your potential for success in your chosen area of study.

Related: Not sure what major or career path is right for you? Read this.

When should you ask for a letter?

The Common App letter of recommendation process guide suggests asking for a letter at least three weeks in advance. This gives your recommenders enough time to craft a well-written letter that reflects who you are as a student.

But the further in advance you ask, the better. There are a few reasons for this:

  • Teachers and school officials can only write so many letters of recommendation every year. Your really great English teacher who connects with everyone is probably going to get a lot of requests, so make the ask before they can’t take any more requests.
  • Working under pressure is the worst. Don’t do that to your recommenders.
  • The letter of recommendation is one of your last chances to shape your college application. Your grades and test scores are already in, and there’s not much you can do to change them (except retaking the SAT/ACT if you still have time.) You have (at least a little) control over the narrative here depending on who you ask and what you remind them about in terms of you as a student.

Related: You can also influence how college admissions officers see you through your personal essay. Use this six step guide to writing the best college application essay possible.

So how do you actually go about asking for a college letter of recommendation?

Plan a time to see your potential recommender face-to-face, or in a virtual meeting, depending on where and how you’re interacting with others right now.

Before the meeting, gather all the information they need to write a great letter of recommendation before a deadline. 

This information includes:

  • the submission deadline(s)
  • how letters need to be submitted (the Common App portal, a school-specific application portal, or sealed envelope addressed to the school)
  • any background information on how you performed in their class, projects you completed, etc.

All there’s left to do now is make the ask.

Before you panic: Keep in mind that most high school teachers write a number of recommendations every year. So while asking for something from them feels like a huge novel thing, it’s normal — expected even — to write these letters.

For the students who say, “I have no one to write a letter of recommendation for me”:

This isn’t uncommon, especially after a year of remote schooling. Many students and teachers have felt the disconnect that comes with teaching online, and you might not have grown close to anyone in your upper level courses.

But don’t panic. You’ve got some options.

Ask teachers from your underclassmen courses to write a letter for you.

When you ask for your letter, ask them to speak about your relationship over a longer span of time (i.e. from the time that teacher first taught you until now.)

Through your teacher’s letter, you have a chance to show your growth over time.

Get close to someone relatively quickly.

If you have the time/opportunity, engage with a teacher in a class you have now, or a leader from an extracurricular activity.

They will probably be more willing to write a letter for someone passionate about the field they’re in.

Consider classes you’ve done really well in and go from there.

If you can’t build any personal relationships in time to ask for a letter of recommendation, consider asking a teacher whose class you excelled in. 

Even if they don’t remember you, you can remind them about how well you performed in their class. Highlight any projects or presentations that you completed exceptionally well.

If they don’t have anything great to say on a personal level, give them something to talk about. Make it as easy for them as possible.

If your application submission deadline is approaching and you don’t have that letter yet:

What if the application deadline is approaching and you don't have your letter of recommendation? Graphic of paper airplanes.

Don’t pressure your recommenders — they’re doing you a favor, remember?

Instead, ask them if you can provide anything else to help them complete their letter. Don’t ask the night before you need the letter.

Note: You don’t usually get to read letters of recommendation before they are sent to your schools. Don’t ask your recommenders to read the letters either. It might make them less honest and more uncomfortable with the idea of writing for you.

After your recommender sends your college letter of recommendation:

Don’t forget to thank them! 

They have taken time out of their lives to help you. Now take the time to show your appreciation for them.

A huge tip: Remember the feeling of racking your brain to figure out who to ask for a letter of recommendation.

If you plan on going to grad school or securing an internship during your college career (which we highly recommended by the way) you will need a letter of recommendation from a college professor. You will probably ask your professors to be your references when applying to jobs post-graduation.

So start building those relationships from the moment you start your classes:

  • Take multiple courses with a single professor to build a relationship over time.
  • Focus on building relationships with professors in your major courses. Their references will be the most relevant ones for any internship or job application in your field.
  • Talk to your professors one-on-one. Ask questions, go to office hours, express your passion for the subject they teach. Make yourself memorable.

You may feel awkward asking for something and checking up on your teachers and mentors.

But most people understand the importance of this application requirement. It’s really not as strange or scary as you think it is.

Now go get those glowing letters of recommendation!

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