A How-To Guide for College Recommendation Letters

By Nicole Lentine ‘07, Associate Director of Admission

Required by some but recommended by almost all institutions, letters of recommendation are an often underutilized but vitally important piece of your college application. These letters can often tell the stories that your essay and other materials can’t. So, how do you go about getting a recommendation letter? Here are a few things to consider:

Who do I ask?

In general, you should approach a teacher for a recommendation letter who has watched you grow over time; someone who can speak to your positive qualities. Consider asking a teacher who you have a connection or a shared interest with, an advisor, coach or your school counselor. They’ve watched you grow, learn and mature from a nervous ninth-grader into a soon-to-be-graduate who is ready to take on the world. Just make sure the person writing your letter has recent stories to reference—if you haven’t worked with them in a few years, you may want to consider asking someone else who will speak to recent, relevant information about who you are in and out of the classroom.

What do I ask for?

Some of the most compelling recommendation letters don’t come from the classes in which you got an easy A. The best stories of your character come from the classes that challenged you. Perhaps it wasn’t your favorite subject or the concepts didn’t come easily to you. If you didn’t let that discourage you, and you sought out extra help, put in additional work, or came back from a rough start, that has potential to be an inspiring reference.

When do I ask?

You’ll need to keep in mind the amount of time it will take for your teacher to fulfill what you’ve asked of them. You should be providing a minimum of a month’s time before your deadline for them to write the letter, but it’s recommended to ask much earlier than that. I suggest asking at the end of your junior year if they’d be willing to write a letter. If they decline, it will give you some flexibility to consider other people you can ask. If they accept, it will give them ample time to craft a thoughtful, strong letter of recommendation. Keep in mind, though, that a gentle reminder and check-in will be helpful when you start your senior year. Deadlines can approach quickly – make sure you’re both prepared to meet them!

How do I ask?

Your request should come through a face-to-face conversation—ideally, one that occurs during free time, not during class hours. Ask politely and prepare your thoughts ahead of time; you can also frame it within some of the reasons why you are approaching them in particular.

Providing details will help them write a personalized recommendation letter. It’s very helpful to provide a “brag sheet”—a list of your involvements and accomplishments over the course of your high school career. You can also share your goals and dreams for the future. Make sure that your recommenders also have detailed information regarding deadlines and submission formats.

Even when you have a good relationship, it can feel intimidating to approach someone for a letter of recommendation. However, it’s more than likely that they will be honored to be asked. With this in mind, you should still be thoughtful about how you approach them.

Thank your recommenders.

After it’s all said and done, give your recommenders a sincere, hand-written note thanking them for the time they spent to help you through this process. While it might be easy for them to speak highly of you, these letters are still difficult to write. Make sure the writers receive the appreciation they deserve!


Recommendation letters may not be the deciding factor in your college applications, but their potential to impact your admittance to your preferred schools shouldn’t be ignored. Your transcript, test scores and essay only tell a few pieces of your story; your recommendation letters breathe life into the spaces in between. So, don’t hesitate to ask for help. Having a strong letter of recommendation will make your admissions counselor sit up and take note and get a better sense of why you are a great fit for their school.