Getting a recommendation

For those of you applying to universities this year, congratulations! You are nearly finished with secondary school and on to the next stages of your lives. Don’t think that your work is all done, though. There are several parts to university applications that will require a bit more time and attention than others.

Some of the most important of these are going to be your letters of recommendation (also called a reference letter or letter of reference). Recommendation/reference letters are letters written by teachers, mentors, or advisers to recommend you for admission to a university. Your recommenders will tell admissions committees about your academic accomplishments, your extracurricular achievements, and who you are as a person.

So it goes to say that choosing the right people to write them for you is critical.

A photo of a student and two teachers sitting at a table.

5 pointers for asking for letters of recommendation:

1: Don’t be nervous

For many, it is incredibly intimidating to ask for something so important. That is natural! However, we are far from the first to say that teachers expect students to ask. It is part of their jobs as educators and mentors.

Particularly in the case of your teachers, students come to them all year to request reference letters. This is especially true in the fall, when college applications are nearly due.

Most teachers are happy to help, especially if they have worked with you for a while. Which brings us to the next point…

2: Ask people who know you well

The best recommenders are those who have known you for a while. Even better are those with whom you have done significant projects. The teachers who know your academic work the best are the ones you should consider before anyone else.

If you haven’t known your teachers for a very long time, think about the ones you talk to most. Particularly if you have a good rapport with them, put them on your list of potential recommenders.

Many universities also ask for a recommendation from a non-teacher. This person can be a sports coach, music instructor, or even a tutor whom you have worked with for a long time. If you have an assigned advisor who helps you plan your courses and keeps up with your academic progress, they are another great option. (Footnote: In the United States, we call these people “guidance counselors.”)

And don’t forget: most of these people have to write letters for lots of students, which means they may need some help from you to write the best letter possible…

3: Be prepared to tell them about what you’ve done in high school

Even if you are getting recommendation letters from people who know you well, keep in mind that they are keeping track of a lot of information for a lot of students.

This doesn’t mean that you will not stand out to them! What this does mean, though, is that keeping track of so much information, then subsequently turning around and transforming all the bits and pieces into an amazing letter is an enormous cognitive task.

When you approach your potential recommenders, there are four ways you can help them right at the beginning:

    • Write down what you most want them to know about you and be prepared to tell them about it. What do you remember about the projects you did for them? What are you interested in studying? Why do you want to go to your dream college?
    • Come prepared to talk about activities that you have participated in throughout high school. Even if you think some things don’t have anything to do with what you want to study, that’s okay! Sometimes better. Anything that helps them see you as a whole human, not just a student, will help you stick in their memory.
    • If you have a resume, bring a copy with you and give it to them. Something they can read and use as a reference will lighten their load immensely.

Perhaps the most important, however, is the fourth way:

4: Make your requests before mid-semester

Before mid-term exams, your school workload is likely to be fairly light. However, after this point, don’t expect to have enough free time to be able to sit down and have a conversation about your hopes and dreams with your favorite teacher.

You absolutely must ask for recommendation letters near the beginning of the school year if you are applying early to a university. Because early deadlines for US schools are on the first of November (and sometimes earlier in the UK), you cannot afford to wait. If all materials for your early application are not submitted, one of two things will happen. You will either be bumped to the regular decision round (and compete with thousands more applicants), or your application will not be considered at all.

More likely than not, you will have exams, homework, extra lessons, and your own hobbies to attend to before mid-semester. Do yourself and your recommenders a favor and get this critical request done as soon as possible.

5: Get their emails and add them to your applications

Once you have gotten definite “yes” answers from your recommenders, you will need to add them to your application. No matter which application you are using (for example: the Common Application (US) or the UCAS (UK)), each will have a section in which you designate your recommenders.

After you do this, your part of the job is done. Once your recommenders submit their letters, you are one step closer to completing your application.