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The Ultimate Guide to College Recommendation Letters

The Ultimate Guide to College Recommendation Letters

The Ultimate Guide to College Recommendation Letters 1000 1000 Theo Wolf

This guide has been updated on April 19, 2021 with more information and useful tips.

How many hours do you put into getting good grades in high school? If you average 3 hours of homework a school day, that’s about 2,000 hours. If you throw in test prep and the fact that 3 hours of homework is an incredibly conservative estimate, it’s unsurprising to learn that some students spend over 5,000 hours on academic work outside of class.

Now, how many hours do you spend deliberately developing positive relationships with your teachers? Maybe you stop by their office occasionally to ask a question or give them a gift at the end of the school year. Across high school, that’s only a few hours.

There is a massive gap between the time students invest in getting good grades and their time spent developing relationships with their recommenders. Yet, GPA and recommendation letters are often weighed equally in college applications. Check the Common Data Set for schools if you don’t believe me. Both GPA and Recommendations are usually ranked as “Very Important.” On top of that, schools have been placing even more value on letters of recommendation, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite their importance, letters of recommendation tend to be more of an afterthought.

In this post, we’ll outline why you should care about recommendations and what you can do about them. In particular, we’ll look at a) why schools are paying more attention to recommendation letters, b) how to choose your recommenders, and c) how to intentionally foster a better relationship with that teacher.

Before we begin, there’s one important caveat: There are a million reasons to build a strong bond with your teachers—obtaining a strong letter of recommendation is only one of many. If it’s your only reason, though, you will come off to your teachers as disingenuous, which could penalize you. You have the potential to have a lifelong friend, mentor, and advocate here. I’m still good friends with one of my recommenders and see him every year during the holidays. It’s easy to get caught up in the singular goal of college admissions, but remember, there’s a life after high school and your teacher has the potential to be a valuable ally to you.

Why It Matters
First and foremost, letters of recommendation give colleges a fuller sense of who students are as people.

As college admissions have become more competitive, it has become harder for officers to distinguish students from one another. Average SAT scores at top colleges are rising (the average SAT of NYU’s ED pool rose 100 points in 2019) and grade inflation has become a major issue among affluent high schools. Even personal statements, the one place for students to have their voices heard in their application, are often written by someone else. As these elements of the application have shrunk in terms of the amount of weight admissions officers can put on them, it’s only natural that the letter of recommendation, a trusted source of insight into a student, would increase in significance.

In light of the college admissions scandals, teacher recommendations have taken on a secondary purpose. They prove that students are who they say they are. If you brag in your application about a massive project you’ve undertaken to improve your school, but your recommenders don’t mention it, that’s going to raise red flags.

How To Choose
Before you look for the teacher whose class you got the best grades in, stop and consider the following. Good grades don’t equate to a good student. You could be a terrible student, disrupting the teacher and distracting your peers, but still do well. Make sure the teacher likes and knows you beyond the classroom.

If possible, choose a teacher who has taught you for multiple years or classes (my recommender taught me three different classes over two years!). Pick a teacher who has taught you recently: a junior year teacher is ideal, but a sophomore year teacher is also fine if you’ve maintained a relationship with them. You’ll also want to choose someone who knows what you do outside of class (a club advisor, etc.). This way, they can verify the projects or clubs you mention in your application.

Colleges typically want two recommendation letters. Although it isn’t required, a good rule of thumb is to choose one humanities teacher and one STEM teacher. For some schools like MIT, this is required, so make sure you check with the colleges in your college list!

Improve Relationships
Once you’ve made a mental list of potential teachers, try cultivating your relationship with them. If you currently take their classes, ask questions in class, after class, or during their office hours. Take more of their classes or get involved in their club. Get to know them outside of class and invite them to be a mentor to you. The more you interact with your teachers, the better they get to know you and the more accurate their recommendation letters will be.



Students often give teachers thank-you gifts to teachers at the end of the year. While it isn’t unheard of for students to gift teachers iPhones or even laptops, buying goodwill is not earning goodwill. The thoughtfulness of the gift is more important than its cost. Consider a gift that will allow you to connect with your teachers. For instance, if you share an interest in pre-Revolutionary War shipbuilding, you can buy a book on the topic, read it, and gift it to your teacher with a note saying you look forward to talking about it. Not only is this gift a show of goodwill, but it also helps you interact more with your teacher.

How to Ask

When you ask your teachers to write a recommendation letter, ask them in-person. Ideally, this should be toward the end of your junior year, but don’t ask on the last day of class as a rejection will leave you scrambling for a backup. You can also ask them in the fall, but it’s riskier as they might not remember as much and may have already agreed to write other letters. If you’re not 100% sure that they’ll write an enthusiastic letter of recommendation for you, you can ask them if they could write a positive letter for you. You don’t want to ask for a letter of recommendation only to get one that doesn’t recommend you.

If your teacher accepts your request, support them so they can write you the best possible letter of recommendation! Schedule a meeting with them and advocate for yourself. Bring a copy of your resume and personal statement and discuss your goals and plans for the future. Let them know where you’re applying to and what program(s) you’re applying for. You can also talk about how you’re doing (or did) in the teacher’s class(es) and the projects you have completed. Tell your teacher about the challenges you’ve overcome or anecdotes you want them to share. With this conversation and the supporting documents, you will refresh your teacher’s memory of you and give them specific details they can include in your letter of recommendation. Remember, you want a customized and glowing letter of recommendation, so give them the tools to do so. And of course, remember to thank your teachers after they write your recommendation letter!

Do you need help figuring out how to strategize your college applications, so that you craft the best application possible? Talk to us about our Application Coaching Program, so that we can support you or your child through the entire process!