Most students think of a recommendation as something they ask for, and then check off their to-do list. Start thinking of a letter of recommendation as something YOU work for!

Make it easy for your teacher

Think about it: Your teacher probably doesn’t like facing a blank page any more than you do! Make it easier for your teacher by providing him or her with answers to the following questions.

1. What are you applying for?
Be specific. The person writing the letter can be more persuasive if s/he knows you’re applying to study history at particular research universities on the East Coast of the U.S., or to study chemistry at small liberal arts colleges, than if s/he only knows you’re “applying to college.”

2. Why do you think you are a good candidate?
Make an appointment to have a talk with your teacher about your plans, and about why you have chosen the colleges to which you will apply. S/he can offer more detailed support of, for example, the extensive library research you did on your final history paper, or of the attention to detail you showed in the laboratory. Were your contributions to class always considerate and well-argued? A college with small discussion classes wants to know that. Do you plan to look immediately for an undergraduate research opportunity in your teacher’s field? How will your teacher know, if you don’t talk about it?

3. Why me?
Remind your teacher gently of any work you did in his or her class that was very successful, or which you enjoyed. When I was teaching college, I was always glad to have a student refresh my memory about an essay to which I had responded with enthusiasm. After all, it was last year, and I might have graded 200 papers since then. Other important factors might be that some of your colleges ask that international students get a letter from someone who taught them in English; this tells me to write with conviction about your linguistic skills, and to mention any steps you are taking to improve.

Athena Advises

When’s the best time to ask for a letter of recommendation? Right now! Twelfth grade is well underway, and you’ve had a chance to impress your twelfth-grade teachers with you ability, resourcefulness and sincerity. You’ve probably turned out work worthy of the new, almost-collegiate you. That’s the person we want to see described in letters of recommendation: the person who is ready for college. (Yes, that’s why you should not ask your ninth-grade art teacher, no matter how much she liked you.)

A month is also a reasonable amount of time to give a teacher to write and submit the letter of recommendation. While some very popular teachers may require a longer lead time, the trade off is that they may be writing a letter based on the eleventh-grade you.

If you’re an international student, be sure your teacher knows how to upload a letter to the Common App, or exactly where to send paper copies. There too, you can make the teacher’s job easier!

And be sure to check whether the colleges to which you are applying require specific letters. For example, if you plan to major in science or engineering, a program might require that one of the letters be from a math teacher. You are responsible for sorting this out.

It’s not about whether your teacher “likes you”! It’s about your qualifications for college!


Dr. Marlena Corcoran
Founder and CEO