How To Get Good Letters of Recommendation



Did you know that a letter of recommendation for college is one of the most universal parts of the application process and something every student has to have?

With so many schools going test-optional, colleges are in the process of finding new ways to evaluate your teen’s readiness (which is a work-in-progress!) 

One thing that seems certain, however, is that letters of recommendation will be scrutinized carefully, maybe more so than in the past.


IF YOU'VE GOT A SENIOR, the first college planning task to do once school begins is to ask teachers for recommendations. Students often ask the same (wonderful) teachers and the earlier you approach him/her, the better chance you have of them accepting AND having time to write you the letter. 

IF YOU'VE GOT A JUNIOR, advise him/her to consider, over the course of the coming school-year, which junior teachers he/she would like to ask for recommendations (guidelines below) and develop strong relationships with those teachers.


  • How many letters of recommendation do I need?  Most colleges that require will ask for at least one and often two recommendations.
  •  Who do I ask? Ask the teachers who know you the best, both inside and out of the classroom, if possible.

Colleges tend to give more weight to teachers who have taught you recently, so it's best to ask a  junior year teacher (unless you don’t have one that knows you well). 

Ideally pick one teacher from the science/math  and one from the language arts/social studies department to demonstrate your strengths in multiple areas (some colleges will even require this).   

If you only need one recommendation, a very solid letter from your math teacher may be better than an amazing recommendation from your history teacher if you’re planning on studying engineering.

It's best NOT to choose teachers who teach electives for your main letter of recommendation (with exceptions like a music teacher for music school applicants), as colleges are most interested in your academic strengths.

Good to know: Teachers will typically only write one universal letter that will be sent to all the schools on your list, vs individually tailored letters for each college.

  • Should I ask my coach, employer, or other community member? Some colleges will allow you to submit a letter, or even multiple letters from "other recommenders", such as a coach, club advisor, or employer.  Don't go overboard and submit too many of these because the readers are moving fast and they may not read all the letters. So pick the person who you believe will write the best recommendation and maybe just stick to that one, extra letter. 
  • When should I ask? Ask early. Give your teachers at least one month before the letter is due, ideally more!   

Always ask the teacher in person, not via email.  If he or she hesitates, take that as a signal that he or she might not be able to write the best letter. In that case, thank them and find someone else. 

  • What information should I give to the teachers I ask? Some schools have a form you must complete and give to the teacher. If your school doesn’t have a form here's what you can do...

Make your teachers’ task easier by giving them a bit more info about you, your future plans, & your experience in their class.  For instance, type something up that responds to these questions: 

  1. I think my academic strengths are…
  2. I think my personal strengths are…
  3. These are some of the things I would like college admissions officers to know about me…
  4. For me, highlights from your class were… (and remind them of any number of things that might help them remember your role in class and weave it into their letter).

For instance:

  • Did you collaborate well with others?
  • Were your projects in that class quite creative?
  • Did you come in X place in the (whatever) classroom contest (writing/model bridge building, etc)?
  • Were you a helpful mentor to other students?  


  • Who submits the letter to the college?  In almost all cases, letters do NOT go to you. The teacher is responsible for submitting them.  However, you MUST invite the teacher to submit the letter electronically, typically through your Common or (Coalition) Application account. If you do not open that electronic link, the teacher cannot get his/her letter into your account and off to the colleges. 
  • What if the college does not accept the Common App? In this case, refer to the individual college's instructions (they usually have their own portal). In some cases, you may need to give your teacher a stamped envelope, addressed to the college, so they can send a hard copy (this is rare).  
  • Should I waive my right to see my letter of recommendation?   YES. When preparing to submit letters of recommendation, you will be asked if you agree to waive your right to access the letter in the future. If you waive your right, it means once the writer sends the letter to the school you have no right to view it. You will never know what the writer said about you.

You should always waive your right to see your letter(s) of recommendation.

If you don’t waive your right the college will wonder why you didn’t feel comfortable enough to waive it. It makes you look like you’re hiding something and they may not take the letter as seriously.

  • Say Thank You.  Once your letter is written and submitted be sure to say thank you to the teacher(s) whose done you this big favor.  Don’t let that pass because they’re really not getting anything back (except your thanks) for doing this super important work for you! 

Setting up so that letters of recommendation are ready to go is an easy task that students can get behind them early in the fall, which will help ease stress! 

Share this info far and wide to help friends get ready and be less stressed!

Your teens most important task for the summer is to write the main essay/personal statement that will go to all/most colleges. 

There's too much pressure once senior year begins and good essays need time for cultivation and revisions.

If your teen hasn't started with that yet I’m always available to help make it happen. I offer 1:1 coaching, which you can learn about here.

Feel free to hit reply to this email if you have any questions! 

PS - If you’re ready to learn how to successfully navigate the college financial aid system so you can find colleges you love at prices you can afford, enroll in my mini-course - The Tuition Markdown Method™. 




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