Who and How to Ask for College Recommendation Letters

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Now that the fall of your senior year is here, you are probably starting to get serious about completing your college applications. Knowing what to do when is critical to getting everything done. So what should at the top of your to-do list? Getting your recommendations lined up. Why? Because your recommenders need plenty of lead time if they are going to write you the best one possible.

How do you go about getting recommendations? When you break it down into the actual tasks involved, getting recommendations isn't that hard. All you have to do is decide who to ask, ask them, and then provide them with the materials they need. But the simplicity of these tasks belies the anxiety that accompanies each of them. The truth is that most students have never asked anyone for a recommendation before and really don't know who to ask, how to ask, or what to provide them. So it makes them nervous . . . and when people are nervous, they procrastinate. That's why we want to give you the basic know-how for getting your recommendations lined up—you don't have the luxury of procrastination!

Who should you ask?

Unless a college specifies differently, you should ask teachers. Colleges consider teacher recommendations as part of their evaluation of your academic abilities and potential. Your teacher recommendations round out your grades and test scores. Therefore, you should ask teachers who know you well, who have taught you for at least a year (preferably last year) in a core academic subject (English/language/literature, mathematics, science, and history/social studies) and who like you and will speak well of you.

How do you ask?

Ask graciously. We strongly recommend that you ask for your recommendation in a face-to-face meeting, rather than by a phone call, e-mail, Facebook post, or text message. A face-to-face meeting signals that you are approaching the college application process with great seriousness, and it allows for some conversation about your request. However, we recognize that face-to-face meetings are not always possible. For example, you may be requesting a recommendation from a teacher who is no longer at your school and no longer lives in the area. In that case, a phone call or e-mail would be appropriate.

Whether you are asking the recommender face-to-face or in some other manner, you must ask in a way that allows for a gracious "out" should the recommender not be willing or able to write you a recommendation. We suggest use phrasing something like this: "Mrs. Smith, I am talking with teachers about recommendations for college. I hope you would be one of my recommenders, but I understand if for whatever reason you cannot. Are you able to write a recommendation for me to college?" If Mrs. Smith says no, don't plead your case. Accept the "no," and thank her for considering your request. Trust us, you do not want to be talking someone into writing you a good recommendation; the ambivalence will always come through.

What do you provide to your recommenders?

It is up to you to provide your recommender with everything he or she needs to prepare and submit your recommendation. We suggest you prepare and deliver the following package of materials to your recommenders within two or three days of asking them:

  • A list of colleges where you are applying with deadlines for receipt of the recommendation letter.
  • A paper copy of the recommendation form or a URL for where the teacher can complete the form online.
  • A signed waiver of access to the recommendation (yes, we recommend you waive your access). This waiver is usually a part of the form, so you will either sign it on the form itself (if giving a paper copy) or sign it electronically online.
  • Directions/materials for submission of the recommendation. If the teacher will be submitting the recommendation by regular mail, then you should provide postage-paid pre-addressed envelopes for mailing. If the teacher will be submitting the recommendation to your school's counseling office via your school's software (such as Naviance), then you should provide directions for how the teacher does that. If the teacher will be submitting the recommendation online via the Common Application or via the college's own online application, then you should provide directions for how the teacher does that too. (Yes, this may take a bit of research and investigation on your part, but it is your responsibility. Your recommender shouldn't have to do anything but write your recommendation. That is enough of a favor to ask.)

Now you have the basic know-how. So no more procrastinating. Get this first thing done and you are on your way!

© 2013 Alison Cooper Chisolm and Anna Ivey, authors of How to Prepare a Standout College Application: Expert Advice that Takes You from LMO* (*Like Many Others) to Admit

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