How to Get a Great Letter of Recommendation

Last updated on November 15, 2017

There are a few things to keep in mind about a letter of recommendation.

  1. It is important to request a letter from teachers or counselors who will write positive ones. I’ll give you some strategies for how to ensure strong letters below.
  2. You must request a letter of recommendation early. You should give your references at least three to four weeks to complete the letter.Teachers and counselors will be writing millions of these letters, and the earlier you approach them, the better.
  3. It is imperative that you provide your references with a packet that summarizes your academics as well as your extracurricular activities. This will make it much easier for them to write your letter. And the easier you make it on your letter writers, the higher likelihood of receiving a strong letter.

How do you choose your letter writers?

Ideally, the teachers should be recent ones, preferably from eleventh grade. Admissions committees sometimes think that ninth and tenth-grade teachers do not represent your current characteristics. Moreover, twelfth-grade teachers may not know you well enough this early in the academic year.

Make a list of your eleventh-grade teachers. If you have taken AP or honors courses, those are generally good choices for references.

You want to ask the teacher who knows you well and will have the capability of including specific examples about you in the classroom.

At this point, you should be able to narrow down a list of references to four or five. You should rank these folks 1-5 (5 being highest) for your interest in requesting a letter of recommendation.

The next step is to approach your potential references in person and ask them if they can write you a letter recommendation. Now, this has to be done somewhat carefully. A letter of recommendation can carry a lot of weight with college admissions committees. Therefore, you need to make sure that your reference will write you a positive letter.

How to Ask?

Starting with your highest-ranked recommended on your list, say this:

“I am applying to several colleges and I was wondering if you know enough about me to write me a strong letter of recommendation?”

Then stop talking.

At this point, you should closely observe your teacher. If they are enthusiastic, that is fantastic.

If they are reluctant, however, it is better for you to abandon ship. Tell them that you appreciate it but that you will ask someone else. Then move down your list.

And if they say no or tell you that they will write it, but it will not be positive, politely tell them that you will ask someone else to do it.

You DO NOT want to include a negative or even a lukewarm letter of recommendation in your file.

Amazingly, many students never check with the letter writer to ensure that they will receive a positive letter. This is a real mistake. Just a having a letter—any letter or recommendation—is not enough. You need to make sure that you have solid ones.