How to ask for a letter of recommendation for your college app

Would you purchase anything on Amazon before reading the reviews? We rely heavily on other people’s opinions to form our opinions or to back up our existing thoughts.

In the same way, colleges want to know what other people think about you, so a letter of recommendation (LOR) boosts your personal and academic validity. 

Your letter of recommendation (also known as a “reference letter”), is a personal review that helps persuade colleges that you’re the right fit for them. But where do you start in requesting a letter of recommendation? Let’s break it down.

Student requesting letter of recommendation

What is a letter of recommendation, and why do I need it?

Colleges want to know you’re who you say you are–and get a bit more personal background, beyond the test scores and transcript. That’s why you need to provide a few letters of recommendation from teachers, counselors, coaches, or mentors. The best letters go beyond just vouching for your accomplishments; they reveal aspects of your personality or character, often by offering anecdotes about how you’ve performed in the classroom, on the job, or on the basketball court.

How many letters of recommendation should I submit?

Each college will list its requirements on its admissions pages. If you’re applying through the Common App, it will also alert you of what each school needs.

But here are some rules of thumb: Some public university colleges will not require any recommendation letters. Most private colleges and military colleges will require 1-3 recommendation letters, normally:

  • 1 from your guidance counselor or college admissions counselor, and
  • 1 or 2 from an academic (high school) teacher 

Sometimes, the 2 academic letters of recommendation need to be written by teachers of very different subjects, for example 1 humanities teacher and 1 math/science teacher. Other colleges suggest 1 teacher in line with your intended college major, and the other teacher from a different subject. 

A few colleges, like Dartmouth, also require that you submit a peer reference letter, which is from a friend your age.

Can I submit extra recommendation letters?

Beyond the mandatory ones, you can also submit supplementary letters of recommendation, for example from a mentor, sports coach, or manager from your internship/job. 

Be careful with these, though! More is not always better. You’d probably upset an admissions team by sending in 10 LORs. In fact, some universities explicitly state a maximum number, which you should 100% abide by. If they don’t state their maximum, aim to submit 3-4 letters.

Whom should I ask for a college recommendation letter?

As mentioned above, some colleges have specific requirements about who the letters must be from. Otherwise, you want to find people who would be able to write strong letters for you. To identify these teachers, ask yourself:

  • Which classes did you excel in–in terms of grades, participation, and effort? (Bonus points if the subjects align with your intended college major.)
  • Which teachers know you well? (For instance, maybe your math teacher was also your track coach. Or maybe you had the same teacher a few times.)
  • Which teachers will have time to write a good letter? (A very popular instructor may be too busy writing many letters!)

Another thing to keep in mind is that it’s best if the letter is from someone who taught or worked with you recently— ideally a teacher from your junior or senior year. (Psst – Check out this worksheet, to help you identify your recommenders.)

If you’re not yet a high school senior, don’t forget that your time will come too. Build and maintain academic or professional relationships early, so that you can request a letter from these contacts later. These relationships may even help you after you graduate from high school.

Letter of recommendation request

When should I request the letter?

As soon as possible! We recommend requesting your letter of recommendation at the end of your junior year or at the beginning of your senior year. You don’t want to bombard your contacts with requests, when they’ll be bogged down with papers, lessons, and recommendation letters in your senior year. Plus, in the unlikely scenario that they say “no,” it’ll give you time to find someone else to ask!

Also remember that the LORs are not the only documentation necessary for your college applications. You’ll also want to prepare your resume, transcripts, and list of extracurriculars. 

Student requesting a letter of recommendation

How should I ask for the reference letters? What should I say?

Absolutely ask for your LOR in person! Asking in person is more personable than an email or cold request letter. Find a time that works for your recommender during a lunch break, a free period, after class, or after school.

Keep the request short and sweet, something along the lines of:

“I really enjoy your lessons. They’re helping me a lot with X part of my life (personally and/or academically). I plan to apply to [College] once I graduate, to study [Major]. I’d really appreciate a strong letter of recommendation from you, as part of my college application.”

Give the recommender enough information so they understand what your future plans are, why this would be beneficial, and how they can help.

Student requesting letter of recommendation

I’ve asked them, and they accepted! Now, what do I do to make sure it’s a kicka$$ letter?

Yes! Don’t just sit back and have them figure it out. As a baseline, you’ll want to give them the logistics: 

  • Tell them what your general college plans are, including which colleges you are applying to, what your intended major will be, and when the deadlines are.
  • If your teacher prefers to snail mail in the recommendation letter instead of upload it online, you may want to provide the teacher with stamped envelopes addressed to the colleges you’re applying to.

But if you want a great letter, you’ll also want to give them all the materials and context they need.

Requesting LOR

Consider sending the following:

  • Your personal statement, if you have it ready. 
  • Your résumé – This should outline your academic and professional experience, such as GPA, test scores, any internships, jobs, and volunteering.
  • A “brag sheet” (see template here) – Exactly as it sounds, this is a document bragging about your accomplishments in your academic and personal life, and maybe some personal qualities or passions that you’d like them to highlight. Your teachers might not be aware of your interests outside the classroom, so this is a great opportunity to expand on why you’re an awesome person to recommend.
    • Keep the brag sheet at less than a page. Your contacts are busy, so you want to make it easy for them to find the best highlights in skimming your sheet.
    • Use bullet points and break up the text so it’s easy to read (like this blog post!).
    • Share hobbies that contribute to who you are and your story. It could be anything from your traveling with your family, to discovering new recipes, to learning to scuba dive.
  • Any notes on things you’d like to particularly mention or comment on 

Finally, in addition to submitting more reading materials to them, consider:

  • Setting up a time to chat, maybe during office hours, so that they get to know you better.
  • Thanking them! The last thing you want them to feel while writing your letter is that you’re ungrateful.

In case you want to see what a really great academic recommendation looks like, here are four recommendation letter examples. You’ll want your teacher to write something similar!

Student reviewing LOR

Can I ask to read the letter? 

So you just mustered up the courage for a letter of recommendation, provided your recommender with additional documents, and now you want to see the letter? That’s absolutely understandable! You want to (hopefully) read positive things about yourself–and to check that the letter is a good one. 

That said, the letter is usually confidential. In fact, for many college (and graduate school) applications, you will need to check a box to indicate whether you waive the right to read the recommendation letters. If you don’t waive this right (i.e., say that you do want to read the letters), sometimes a teacher will object to writing it at all, and either way, colleges will assume that the letter is less forthright and trustworthy. For elite colleges, the expectation is that you always sign the waiver.

That said, outside of this waiver, your recommender will make the final decision on whether he or she shows you the letter. Don’t pressure them, if they don’t offer to show it to you. Remember that the letter of recommendation is built on trust, so we want to harbor that trust!

How are those letters submitted? 

There isn’t one clear way to do this. The old school way (which some teachers still prefer) is for the recommender to directly send the letter of recommendation by postal mail, completely independent of your college application. Other times, teachers will give their letters to your guidance counselor, who will send off all your school LORs and transcript together, in a full “school profile.”

For most applications, though, you can also request the LOR online, and then your teacher will receive a link to upload the document. Note that for the Common App, you can submit your application without the letters; your teachers simply need to upload the recommendation letters before the colleges’ final application due dates. 

Since teachers can sometimes forget, and mail can sometimes get lost, do follow up with your applications to make sure they are “complete.” 

College recommendation

Use your college recommendation letters to win scholarships too!

Once you’ve got those great letters, put them to double use. You can recycle those those same college LORs, as your recommendation letters for scholarships. 

With Going Merry’s scholarship search and application platform, adding these LORs is easy. In the documents section, hit the “Request a recommendation letter” button, type in your recommender’s email, and voila! They’ll be able to upload the document for you to include in your Going Merry scholarship application.

Going Merry: it’s your one-stop scholarship shop. Sign up for Going Merry today, for free.

Kelly Lamano

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