Updated: Apr 5
In addition to your own writing in your college applications, there are a few supporting voices that help tell your story. Your school counselor is asked to write a recommendation as part of the "secondary school report." (Students are sometimes surprised by this! Get to know your counselor!) In addition, many colleges, especially those on the Common Application, will require one or, usually, two teacher letters of recommendation (LORs.)
To understand the role of these documents, think of it in the helpful way one of my former colleagues puts it: the counselor letter is a "floodlight," illuminating the whole picture of who you are in the school community, and what they know about you beyond that context; the teacher LORs are "spotlights," focused specifically on your classroom presence.
Securing teacher recommendations for your college applications calls upon several critical skills embedded in a successful college search. You need to reflect upon your academic experience, think about classes where you made a connection to the content or the instructor, and communicate your request for a recommendation in a mature, thoughtful manner.
You will need to communicate with your recommenders your rationale and your plans (including deadlines) throughout the process, through your eventual matriculation. Doing this well strengthens your applications, so be prepared to take charge.
Be sure to check in with your school counselor during junior year to be sure you are following any established guidelines at your school. There may be specific procedures to follow or forms you need to fill out. There are all kinds of different practices. I am aware of some schools where the counseling office manages the requests and matches them to teachers, for example, and there may be other steps in place to help teachers and students.
Teachers may have their own particular preferences for this process-- another reason it's a good idea to ask teachers earlier than later.
Teachers and students alike may find this video from Vanderbilt admission enlightening. It's over a decade old but still accurate and informative, with good examples!
When do I ask for teacher recommendations?
It's a good idea to ask about any specific processes at your school, and potentially to begin talking to your chosen teachers, in April-May of 11th grade. If not, ask as early as possible when senior year begins!
Make it a goal, if possible in your school, to have at least one of your LOR writers secured by the end of 11th grade, if not both.
Whom should I ask to write my teacher recommendations?
The best recommendations come from two junior year teachers who can best speak to your habits of mind, your commitment to academics, your classroom participation and collaboration, and your sense of engagement in their discipline. Some potential colleges and academic programs may require specific recommendations, so you will have to consider that when you make your choices.
Remember, they are asked to describe what's in the "spotlight" of your classroom and academic engagement. Your academic advisor, the teacher you babysit for or who sponsors your club may not be the right ask here-- see below for tips on including the voices of those folks who know you personally, but haven't taught you in a core academic class.
One common question I encounter-- don't worry about which teacher is the "best writer" or anything like that. It's the content that matters, not the style. Heck, bulleted LORs are highly effective and are becoming the norm at many schools. Also-- no one teacher has special power at colleges. Choose the folks who have seen your best work.
It could be that your best work may not have yielded an A in the course. It doesn't matter. Some of the very best letters I've seen have been written by teachers in whose class the student struggled. The story of your self-advocacy and working effectively with the teacher to master a topic or skill that does not come easy for you can show all the great qualities that colleges want in their students.
By the way, if a teacher you feel a good connection with is leaving your school for your senior year, for retirement or because of a move, they can still write for you. This happens frequently in international schools. Ask the teacher before they go, and work out a plan for them to submit their letter to your school counselor.
What if I am think someone else might make a better choice, or I don't have 11th grade teacher options?
This is a good topic for conversation with your counselor. In general, it's preferred that recent teachers write for you. If not junior year, a teacher who taught you in grades 9 or 10, and will teach you again in senior year, could be a great choice to show your growth over time. If all else fails and circumstances require you to ask teachers from 10th grade, work with those you have on your team, and go ahead with those teachers.
Do I need to ask teachers from certain disciplines? Should I have one from the humanities and one from math/ science courses?
This is a very commonly shared myth of college admission. In most cases, you can ask the teachers who can best speak to your work, classroom contributions and collaboration. Certain courses of study in some countries outside the US may have requirements that teachers from certain disciplines write for you. If you are planning on studying engineering, you should probably have a math or physics teacher write for you. However, in the majority of cases, the only real rule is not to ask two teachers from the exact same department.
If there are colleges you are definitely planning to apply to, take a minute to check their admission requirements page on their website for any specifics. One that surprises students sometimes with LOR preferences is Harvey Mudd College. It's a terrific small liberal arts college that specializes in STEM, but they ask for a humanities LOR.
It’s always a good idea to talk to your counselor first to think through which teachers might be best to ask.
What do I do if a coach or fine arts teacher, a third teacher, or someone from outside of school offers to write for me (or just knows me really well)?
Colleges want the teacher recommendations to address your engagement in the classroom, and they usually require letters to come from a traditional “academic” discipline (even though the arts are academic and challenging!): English, Math, Science, Social Studies, Language.
They also don’t want your application to be stuffed with additional materials beyond what they ask for-- and some colleges specify in Common App that they will only receive two randomly chosen letters when more are uploaded. Please respect the general guideline: do not submit materials that are not requested with your applications.
Coaches, club sponsors, advisors, choir directors, teachers who aren't writing your LORs, and other adults may be the ones you are closest to and who you feel know you most completely at school. There is a great solution to including these additional voices—the counselor letter. While teachers are asked to focus their comments on your academic self, counselor letters capture the larger picture of you as a community member and human being.
Talk to your counselor about whether they are open to getting these short insights from other adults first, and if they give you the green light, ask those trusted adults to write a paragraph or two and email it to your counselor. They can weave those quotes and perspectives into the narrative about your life beyond the classroom.
As someone who wrote more than 700 of these counselor letters over the years, I can attest that the best ones had "money quotes" from the kind of folks I'm talking about. Nobody at school knows you better than the adults you engage with every day, and their insights can help the counselor capture your essence. Rec letters I wrote as a counselor have been used by a few colleges in demonstrating effective letters to other counselors, and it's that content that was key to making the letters impactful.
How do I go about asking teachers to write for me?
Once you have teachers in mind, approach your potential recommender and ask them if they know your work well enough to write for you and if they would agree to do so.
It's a good idea to make an appointment or a plan to meet with your teacher so that you can sit down and have this conversation.
Unless there are complicating circumstances (like the pandemic created a few years back), absolutely, if at all possible, do this in person! (Or video call if that's how you typically interact with this teacher.) This is not a request to make by email, text, folded note left in the teacher mailroom, etc.
Show care and intention, and choose a time when your teacher can take your request seriously (for example, not while either of you is rushed, distracted, or on the way to something else). Some teachers may wish to have a further conversation with you or ask to see additional work and/or a resume of your accomplishments. Be timely and cooperative in responding to their requests.
What happens if they say “no?”
If a faculty member feels she or he does not know you or your work well enough to write for you and declines your request, that’s actually a good thing, as you do not want recommendations that are vague and/or brief. Only someone who remembers your work relatively well can write first-rate recommendations for you.
I still laugh thinking back at how I asked my sophomore Chemistry teacher, Mr. Grosser, for an additional letter when I was applying to colleges. It was a bad idea anyway, because he taught me in 10th grade, but he calmly asked me some questions about my pretty awful performance in Chem, and my proclivity for independent exploration when experiences involved potential explosions... to interesting and unwelcome results. I've grown some since then...
Once I secure my recommenders, what’s the next step?
Okay. You have had a polite and thoughtful conversation with each intended teacher in which they agree to write for you. Your school may have forms to sign or turn in establishing those teachers as your writers, so that the counselors can keep track.
If your school uses Naviance, SCOIR or MaiaLearning, there may be a process for you to enter your teachers. If this is the case, don't miss this step, or else your teachers will log in to submit letters and possibly find that they are unable to!
Be sure to talk to your school counselor about Common App! If you add teachers as recommenders in your Common App account, it could potentially prevent them from being able to submit their LOR through Naviance, SCOIR or Maia as part of the school documents.
If there are no other forms, questionnaires, etc required at your school, I think it's a good idea to draft some thoughts in a reflection to help your teacher write this letter.
Here are some guiding reflection questions I borrowed from a form we used to use at a school. I suggest using it and giving the product to your teachers before the summer. Answers to these questions can help your recommender remember critical details about the classroom experience and help provide useful context for the recommendation. Paste them into a document and answer them fully, thoughtfully, with specific details.
Student Reflection Template for LOR Writer
Your name, name of courses taught to you by this teacher, and what grade you were in.
Why did you choose this course/ these courses? How do you think it/ they helped you prepare for your college/ major/ general goals?
"I believe I added to our class by ______________."
How did you/have you grown/ developed as a student throughout the course/s? Give evidence and examples.
Describe at least one challenge you faced in this/ these course/s and explain the actions you took to overcome the challenge.
Provide any examples of how you show excitement about this subject beyond doing all the assigned work in class.
How has engagement with your peers and your teacher supported and furthered your learning in this course?
Name a specific project, assignment, test, presentation or discussion that you feel demonstrated your ability or potential in this teacher's course/s, and explain why.
In university/college, the areas I am most interested in studying are (be specific as possible, but it's also okay if you are undecided):
"I was inspired to pursue this area because ___________."
Additional information I feel will help you understand my academic ability, potential, or circumstances includes:
Please consider including in my recommendation:
Can I see my LORs?
Simply put, no! Be sure you waive your right to access on every platform that asks. If you don't do so, it raises a red flag with colleges, and could prevent letters (if they still went ahead and submitted them) from being downloaded at colleges. The college admission offices want to know that your letter is unbiased and that you did not influence it. If your teacher decides to show it to you, that's their decision, but for all official purposes, waive your access to the letter.
By the way, PLEASE RESIST the temptation to remind or check in on teachers. Make sure they have all the information they need about your deadlines, and make sure you have followed every step of your school's process, and then trust your supporters.
What else should I be doing? Show gratitude.
After the application process is over, if not before, be sure to thank the teachers who wrote for you by writing them a thoughtful and heartfelt thank you note, and remember to let them know where you decide to matriculate. They're invested!
Teachers put enormous time and energy into your recommendations, often outside of school hours on evenings and weekends. They deserve your personal thanks and appreciation.
If you're interested in learning more about the guidance I can provide as an independent counselor with 20 years of school-based experience that gives me insight like this, please reach out!