How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation for College

Photo of student shaking professor's hand after asking for a letter of recommendation
June 7, 2022
Do You Need a College Recommendation Letter?Who to Ask for a College Recommendation LetterWho Should You Not Ask for a College Recommendation LetterHow to Ask for a LetterFAQs: Asking for a Letter of Recommendation for College

”Mary

Reviewed by:

Mary Banks

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 4/13/22

Need help on how to ask for letters of recommendation for college? Check out this article that offers vital information on how to do so. 

Creating your college application takes hard work. It would be helpful if you had transcripts, personal statements, application fees to pay, and other things. Quite possibly, one of the most crucial components of your application is your letters of recommendation. 

A letter of recommendation is a personalized letter from one of your teachers, supervisors, volunteer guides, or clients that are received and read by the college admissions boards you apply to. They are used to illustrate that you would be a good fit for the college, and discuss who you are from another person's point of view.

This article will discuss how to ask for a letter of recommendation. You will learn about who to ask, plan how to ask, use proper etiquette, and other concerns you may have regarding the matter.

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Do You Need a College Recommendation Letter?

Most post-secondary institutions require you to have one to three letters of recommendation in your application. As a high school student, colleges usually expect them to be from your guidance counselor and at least one teacher. These letters are usually electronically submitted through the college's specific application portals, or The Common Application

However, the number of letters may vary, and some schools do not even need you to have one. Make sure to check your dream college's admission requirements to see if they need recommendation letters, and if so, how many are required. You also have the option to offer supplemental letters if they are not required; doing so might better your chances of being accepted, because it shows you are willing to do extra work to be considered.

Who to Ask for a College Recommendation Letter

Here is a list of people who are best suited to write students a letter of recommendation for college. These people are qualified because they talk about your skills, strong personality traits, and dedication in whatever activities you have done under their supervision. 

Teachers

Teachers are the most common and optimal choices to write a recommendation letter. 

They are in the best position to comment on your academic strength, skills, and relationship with your work and your classmates. 

When choosing your teachers, you can consider a class you excelled in academically. Which teacher inspired you? Which class did you participate in and show effort in? Did you impress any teachers with your dedication to group work and projects? Are there any classes in which you surpassed the teachers' expectations?

Requesting a teacher does not have to be just academic; you can ask a teacher who participated in a club you were in or one that had you for more than one class. Junior year teachers are usually your best bet because they taught you for a whole year, while your senior teachers do not yet have that much experience with you. 

All in all, you must choose a teacher who knows you well, even if you did not get the top grade in their class, it should be one who can vouch for you having confidence and personal strengths that are amicable.

Employers

If you have worked a job during your high school years, your employers would be the next best choice to write you a letter for college. Believe it or not, colleges and universities greatly value letters from employers. Alongside academics, a job shows that you are a reliable worker, which mirrors your reputation as a student in a classroom. 

Like teachers, you and your employer should have a good relationship and good performance on the job. Ask yourself the following questions; 

By asking these questions, you and  your employer can write about it and show your prospective colleges why you would be a great fit for their institution.

People You Know from Volunteering

If you have done any volunteer or charity work, you can ask your supervisors from the project for a letter of recommendation. These letters are just as valuable as teachers or employers. This type of recommendation letter shows that you are a person who does volunteer work and learns new skills, such as event planning, time management, and leadership skills.

The volunteer organization you participate in shows your dedication to the cause, whether at an animal shelter, a children's hospital, your local library, and others. They see how you demonstrate the group's objective and showcase your capacities to align with the institution's desired profile. These letters can also be idyllic when applying for financial aid and scholarships.

Who Should You Not Ask for a College Recommendation Letter

Some students do not know the correct people to ask for recommendation letters. These are the people you should not ask for recommendation letters for college and why. 

Family 

Under no circumstances should you ask family members for a letter of recommendation. Colleges will not regard the letter favorably, and not only would it weaken your application, but your chances of getting accepted as well.  

Not using family is an important rule; since they are your blood relatives, many admissions officers assume that any positive views are biased. This is generally a conflict of interest; colleges do not want to hear about someone who is essentially programmed to think the best of you; you need someone whom you have made an impression on in the time they knew you. 

Your Best Friend (Unless It is a Peer Recommendation)

Alongside family, friends are also prohibited from offering you a recommendation letter. Your friends and classmates should not write your college letters of recommendation. Letters should be from people who taught or supervised you, not someone your age who hangs with you for other activities.

Sometimes, however, there can be special exceptions. Schools such as Dartmouth or Davidson College offer a specific 'peer recommendation' requirement, where you are permitted to ask a friend, sibling, colleague, or teammate to elaborate on your relationship with them. This allows them to offer their praise about how good a friend and partner you are, but unless otherwise stated, other colleges will dismiss your candidacy if they find out your letter came from one of your fellow high school peers.

Someone Who Does Not Know You Well

It should be obvious not to ask someone who barely knows you for a recommendation letter. The letter aims to have someone vouch for how you are an ideal student with a unique personality and would make a great addition to the college campus. So it goes without saying the writer of the letter has to know you to some extent and should know some of your strengths in detail. 

There is no logical reason to request a letter from someone with whom you do not have the best relationship or a teacher with whom you received a low grade in their class. It would help if you took time to consider different people to ask and then evaluate whom you made a strong impression on & worked closely with. If the person you have in mind does not have any connection to you, don’t ask them. 

How to Ask for a Letter

Of course, you have to ask the people you have chosen for a letter of recommendation for college. However, there are special steps you must take when requesting a letter, and they all vary on how you approach the person with the request. Here are some etiquette tips for the forum you want to ask them.

Email

Nowadays, the best choice to ask a teacher or supervisor for a letter of recommendation is through email. It is quick, efficient, and offers the most privacy. However, you must approach them with a formal and polite request promptly.

Determine the schedule - It is best that you should request a letter from your person of choice six to eight weeks before the time you need the letter. Never make a last-minute request; it could limit your options, affect the letter's quality, and possibly miss the deadline. 

If you cannot afford a six to eight-week notice, ask as soon as possible. It is courtesy and allows the person plenty of time for this favor, so they can put effort and thought into the letter to present you in a positive light.

Draft and edit your email - Create a personalized email for each person of your choice. Copying a different request directly from your email is not wise in case you carry over incorrect details. There are many email templates you can use to carefully tailor your email and proofread before sending off the final draft.

Send your email and set a reminder to follow up - After sending the request, allow a few days for them to accept. In case they deny it, you should have some backups ready. If they agree, set a reminder for yourself to follow-up up to three days before the due date to remind anyone who has not sent you the letter. 

Phone

It may not be ideal for high school students, but you can always call the person of your choice to request a letter. You must, however, make sure it is okay to call them, especially if it is a teacher. When requesting a letter of recommendation, you should always approach the person with respect and keep in mind that you ask them for a favor. 

As with the email, ensure when they are free to call, then politely ask them for a letter of recommendation, lay out the details (which program you are applying to, what you wish them to write about), and then be prepared to answer any questions. Be sure to make note of what you wish to say to them before making the call to avoid any awkwardness, or you may not get your point and vision across. 

In-Person

As a high school student, your best choice is to request a letter from a teacher or employer in person. Doing so proves that you are proactive and not afraid to show your boldness and dedication to face them and request a letter personally. 

Of course, if circumstances require you to request over email or even phone, that is perfectly acceptable. However, asking in person allows you to add personal touches that email and phone usually cannot do. 

Be sure to ask them what would be a good time to talk to them alone; if it is a teacher, ask if you can talk after class or find a time to sit with them alone and discuss it. With an employer, you can call ahead and ask when they are free so that you can talk with them in their office.

FAQs: How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation for College

Do you have some more concerns regarding asking for a college recommendation letter? It is always good to ask if you are not sure. Here are some general FAQs regarding how to ask for a letter of recommendation for college. 

1. Can I Use the Same Letters of Recommendations for All My Dream Schools?

Yes, of course! If  a letter of recommendation  is required, you should ask the person writing the letter to submit it separately to each college. Using an application platform, such as Common App, can help facilitate the process. A platform automatically sends all documents to the schools you apply for.

2. Should I Tell My References What I Want Them to Write About?

You don’t necessarily have to tell your references what to discuss, but rather have a talk and lay out your ideas of what you would like them to write about. They may ask you what you want the colleges to know, and you can offer them which personal and intellectual qualities you want them to talk about.

3. How Long Should My College Recommendation Letter Be?

Your letter of recommendation should be around 300 to 400 words and be no more than two pages in length, unless otherwise specified by the college.It should present your accomplishments, skills, and character from an objective point of view.

4. When Should I Ask For a Letter of Recommendation?

As mentioned above, you should allow yourself six to eight weeks, but usually, it is best to ask at least a month in advance before the deadline for the letter. This gives the references time to decide if they can write a letter, how to plan it out, draft, and write the final copy.  

Remember, many teachers receive several requests for letters of recommendation, and writing these letters can be quite overwhelming. Give them an appropriate time frame to plan it out and write it. 

5. Should I Include My Reference's Contact Information?

Your person of choice should sign it, so the letter is authentic. They can offer their contact information if the college permits it, but if they do, it has to be sealed in an envelope or document for confidentiality reasons. 

6. Can I Ask a Former Professor for a Letter of Recommendation?

Yes, but be careful about how former of a professor they were. That would be permissible if it were about 2 to 3 years ago. If you wish to go further or talk about a teacher who inspired you and had a strong connection with you, you can always contact them and make a formal request. You can recommend that they talk about a special project you did in their class, or how you were their top student, and so on.

7. Should I Send a Thank You Note to My References?

Yes, absolutely. After the letters have been completed, signed, and sent, you should always send a thank you letter to each individual who wrote them. It is the polite thing to do and shows your appreciation for common courtesy for them. Your references acknowledge your gratitude for their time and effort in writing the letters, and they will help support you in your participation for future success. 

Final Thoughts

Asking for a college recommendation letter can be a daunting and humbling task. However, if done well, it can be a rewarding experience that can make a great impression on your academic future. 

It is important to be respectful and civil when requesting a letter of recommendation; figure out the best way to contact them, give them time to do it, and thank them for their work once it’s done. It can help you in the long run!

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