There is a very good chance that at some point during high school, you are going to have to ask for a letter of recommendation.
If you plan to apply to college, you will likely need at least two letters of recommendation as part of your application. But college applications are not the only time you’ll need recommendations.
You may also need to ask for letters of recommendation to apply for scholarships, internships, pre-college programs, summer schools, and other academic programs. You may even need them to get a job during or after high school.
Asking for a letter of recommendation can feel awkward or embarrassing. However, knowing the right way to handle the situation can ease that embarrassment. This guide offers a simple step-by-step process to walk you through this routine part of high school life.
And as you think about how to ask for letters of recommendation, remember that many people in your life want to help you achieve your goals with a positive reference!
Why are Letters of Recommendation Important?
Letters of recommendation are an important element of college admissions and other applications because they offer a different perspective into your personality and your strengths.
Recommendations from teachers and coaches offer admissions committees a type of insight that they can’t get from a transcript or from your personal statement and essays.
Showing how you interact with your peers in the classroom or teammates during a competition, for instance, gives admissions committees a sense of how you will fit into their community. Recommendations can also highlight strengths—such as persistence and commitment to hard work—that might not be evident from test scores.
This alternate perspective is so important to admissions officers that letters of recommendation are one of the most important parts of your college application. According to the 2019 State of College Admissions Report by the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, most colleges rank counselor and teacher recommendations as more important in their consideration process than class rank, extracurricular activities, portfolios, and AP test scores.
So just how do you go about getting the strong letters of recommendation you need to boost your application?
Following these simple steps—and doing some advance planning—will help make the process a bit easier.
1. Choose Who to Ask
The first step in getting letters of recommendation is deciding who you should ask to write the letters for you.
Before you begin, check the requirements of the school or program you are applying to. Be sure you ask people who fulfill those requirements. For example, many applications require a letter from a guidance counselor and a core teacher: English, math, science, or social studies.
Many applications also require a specific number of recommendations. Stick to those requirements as well, and only submit supplemental letters of recommendation if the application offers the option.
Once you know the requirements of the application, you will want to identify teachers who taught you recently and know you well enough to provide insight into your work and personality.
Of course, if possible you should pick a class in which you have done well. You may also want to think about classes you enjoy the most, where you participate more frequently, or where you’ve worked with the teacher in a one-on-one setting on a project or to get extra help.
If you have the option to submit additional letters of recommendation, you may want to ask teachers who taught non-core classes that closely align with your interests or potential major, such as art, music, or computer science.
Other possibilities include coaches, club advisors, employers, or leaders at a volunteer opportunity: these individuals can provide valuable insights into your strengths in non-academic settings.
What if No One Knows Me Well Enough to Write a Recommendation?
Not everyone is outspoken or participates in activities, so you may feel like the adults in your life don’t know you as well as others in your class.
But don’t worry. Your teachers, most likely, know you better than you think they do. Moreover, a letter of recommendation doesn’t have to be an in-depth biographical account of your life, nor do you have to have known someone for years for them to be qualified to write you a recommendation.
Consider scheduling a sit-down with the person you would like to write a recommendation to help them to get to know you. Share why you’re applying to the school or program, how it will help you toward your goal, and why you think you are a good fit.
A short conversation shows initiative and commitment, as well as provides them with what they need to write the letter.
Pro Tip: Many applications require a letter of recommendation from your guidance counselor. Therefore, it’s important to get to know your counselor, and help them get to know you. So make a point of visiting your guidance counselor throughout your high school journey!
2. Ask In Person
Once you have decided whom you want to ask, if possible, you should ask them in person to write you a letter of recommendation.
This is probably the hardest part of getting letters of recommendation! It can be challenging to walk up to a teacher and ask them to write nice things about you. But remember: they know this is the process and, in most cases, they want to help you.
Find a time when you can speak with your teacher alone. Arrive a few minutes early or stay a few minutes after class, and ask politely if you can speak with them for a minute. Be respectful of their time; if they seem rushed, ask if you can make an appointment.
State your request in a polite and respectful manner. You may want to start with a personal reason why you are asking them in particular. For example, note how much you enjoy their class, that their subject aligns with a potential major, or that you enjoyed learning from with them when working on a recent project.
If they agree, let them know you’ll follow up with an email with all the details. And be sure to say “Thank you”.
Pro Tip: Ask for your recommendation well in advance of when you need it. It takes time to write a strong letter. And most teachers—especially core teachers—are writing letters for lots of students. A minimum of two weeks is acceptable; six to eight weeks in advance is even better. Rising seniors applying to college in the fall may want to ask for letters from junior-year teachers at the end of the spring semester!
3. Follow Up with a Written Request
After you have made your request in person, you will need to follow up with a written request—usually by email—that confirms your discussion.
The email should start by thanking them again for agreeing to write a letter of recommendation for you.
The email should include all the information they need to complete the recommendation, such as:
- Why you are asking them
- What the application is for (college applications, a summer program, scholarship, etc)
- Any requirements the letter should include
- How to submit the recommendation
- When the recommendation is due
Your email should indicate if there is anything specific you want the letter to address, such as a project you are proud of or a skill you mastered.
And your email should include a list of your accomplishments—a “brag sheet”.
For students who are unaccustomed to touting their accomplishments, coming up with a brag sheet can also be a challenging part of the process.
But remember: applying to college or a special program is not the time for modesty! Your brag sheet will give your teachers the important information they need to make the strongest recommendation on your behalf, so it should be thorough, accurate, and not at all self-effacing.
Pro Tip: Email each teacher individually. Do not use a group email to make your written recommendation request. Be sure to address your teacher by name, and customize it for that person and their class.
4. Follow Up If Necessary
Most applications today are set up via online portals to allow your teachers to submit their letters of recommendation directly to the school or program to which you are applying. So waiting to see that box get checked can be nerve-wracking.
If the recommendation hasn’t been submitted a week before the due date, it’s ok to send your teacher a polite reminder email that the due date is approaching. If they have agreed to write it, they will do so. But it’s always possible that the due date slipped their mind, or your email with the information they need got lost in their inbox.
Do not, however, nag your teacher with multiple follow-ups. If the due date is approaching and you have not heard from your teacher after one follow-up, ask your school guidance counselor for help contacting the teacher.
Pro Tip: Make sure the tone of your follow-up email is cooperative, not confrontational. Avoid phrases that could be construed as accusatory: “You haven’t submitted your letter of recommendation yet.” Instead, ask if they need any additional information from you as they work on your letter.
5. Send a Written Thank You
Once your application is complete, send everyone who wrote you a letter of recommendation a personalized email thanking them for their help. If you know the results of your application, let them know how much their assistance helped you achieve your goals.
It’s easy to forget this step, but it is so important to acknowledge—with a written thank you—their role in your application. After all, everyone—even teachers—likes to be thanked and acknowledged. And acknowledging their help will make it easier to ask for their assistance—or another letter of recommendation—again in the future.
Asking for a letter of recommendation or a reference is a life skill, one that you’ll need throughout your academic and professional career. Learning how to ask for a letter of recommendation the right way in high school will not only make your applications stronger now, it will set you up for success in college and beyond.