Two of our community members offer their advice. This story was first published in our Paying for College 101 Facebook community. It’s been edited for clarity and flow.
Tips from Valerie:
I’m a high school teacher, teaching and residing on Long Island in New York. I’m also a parent to a 15-year-old and a 10-year-old. I write a lot of letters of recommendation for college and as a parent I’ll be helping my student ask teachers for recommendations.
One of my top tips is to have a “brag sheet” ready to share with teachers.
Our school encourages students to have a brag sheet to give to a teacher when they agree to write a recommendation letter for college. Many teachers in my district, including myself, depend on this. When writing the letter, we can use the brag sheet to discuss the successes the student has both inside and outside of class.
A brag sheet for a letter of recommendation should include clubs the student was enrolled in from ninth through twelfth grades. It should also list awards received, sports, volunteer work, and any jobs. This benefits both the student and teacher, as it makes it easier for the teacher to write the letter of recommendation for college. —Valerie
Tips from Rosana:
As an educator with lots of college letters under my belt, here’s my best advice for your kids for securing good, timely letters:
Writing letters of recommendation for college is part of the job of being a teacher. Often the same group of teachers get most of the requests because students find them inspirational, warm, or relatable. Women and women of color in particular get a lot of requests.
In my experience a good letter takes hours of labor. The teacher has to think about the student, what they did, how they stood out, and why they should be able to succeed in the new setting.
Who to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation for College
The biggest mistake students make is asking for a letter just because they did well in a class or because they liked the teacher.
They don’t explain what they’re hoping to get from the letter.
When more than one letter is needed, it’s good to try to get some diversity in letter writers. For instance, a student shouldn’t just ask all science teachers. They may ask two teachers and also a boss or a coach, or the teacher who heads the school club they’re in.
I also say it’s good to get some gender diversity; men and women often write different kinds of letters, which has been shown time and again in research. Studies also show that letter writers use different words to describe male and female students.
What matters most is getting letters from people who know the student, especially at this level. It’s great for a student to have a letter from the Advanced Placement (AP) Biology teacher if they’re applying to a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) program. However, if they were intimidated in that class and didn’t shine, it might not be the best option.
A letter from their sophomore chemistry teacher may be better if they performed well in that class.
How and When to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation for College
It’s always best for a student to indicate their intent to request a recommendation letter for college well ahead of the letter-writing season.
A good time is just when the class ends. When I’m saying goodbye at the end of the term, they can ask, “When the time comes, can I ask you for a letter?
And if so, what will I need to give you, and how much lead time do you like?”
Generally, a month of lead time should be plenty.
If possible, the best approach is a face-to-face ask followed by an email with the details. The in-person request allows the teacher to ask anything they’re wondering about.
Have your child ask, “Would you like reminders as the deadline approaches? I know I appreciate reminders when you give them.” (Humor helps.)
Supply the Details
Your student should follow up with an email that gives the letter writers the details they’ll need:
Thanks again for agreeing to send a recommendation letter for me. It is due on (date), and it should be emailed to xxxxx.
I asked you to write my letter because
- In your class I felt pushed/motivated/(something about why the student chose this teacher).
- I feel that you have seen my critical thinking/writing/presenting skills in action.
As a reminder, I was your student in
- X class during X year.
- I earned a (grade).
- My final project was on X Topic, and you noted that my presentation was (positive feedback).
- Here’s a screenshot of my presentation to jog your memory.
I am applying to X schools because
- Reason 1
- Reason 2
- Reason 3
I am attaching my college essay to this email if it helps you get a sense of my goals and motivation.
I know you are busy and maybe writing other letters, so if there’s anything else you need from me, please let me know.
A narrative structure can be used instead, but I prefer bullet points.–Rosana
Read more about letters of recommendation:
Tips for Getting a Letter of Recommendation for College
What You Should Put In a Brag Sheet
Examples of the Common App Teacher Recommendation Form
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