I’ll never forget the moment. My English teacher — his hair wild, his eyes dilated — looked like he’d experienced misfortune of biblical proportions. I was clutching an extra stamped envelope, just in case. Tentatively I asked: was everything all right with my letter of recommendation?

“You’re fine, but I lost Lillian’s letter,” he said despondently. “I looked everywhere. I got so upset, I rent my clothes.”

This was the first time I’d heard anyone use this phrase, from the Old Testament, for tearing one’s garments out of grief. It was also the moment I realized that letters of recommendation, those magical yet required endorsements that could open doors to our future, were stressful for teachers, too.

Some 30 years later, as the parent of a high school junior, I see that these letters continue to loom large in the college application process. They matter, still. A little for some schools, a lot for others. Either way, getting them can be a learning opportunity for your child.
Why? Because this may be the first time your child has to ask a formal favor of an adult — all on their own.

Here’s how to make sure your teen understands the who, when, how, and what of this important element of their college applications.

Who to ask

2 teachers who know them well and their high school counselor

“The teachers’ recommendations and the counselor’s serve different roles,” explains Swami Venkates, founder of LifeLaunchr, a platform to help students prepare for college. “A teacher’s recommendation isn’t about your academic performance. Your teacher doesn’t have visibility into all your classes.”

Instead, says Venkates, students should think about the teachers with whom they’ve built some relationship. “You want a teacher where there’s a solid rapport or a mentoring relationship.”

Instead, says Venkates, students should think about the teachers with whom they’ve built some relationship. “You want a teacher where there’s a solid rapport or a mentoring relationship.”

Generally students chose a teacher from their junior or senior year, but if students had a particularly good connection with a sophomore year teacher, then that teacher might be the best choice. High school counselors, on the other hand, offer a more statistical picture of a student’s accomplishments. They can assess your child compared to other students in the school, comparing courses chosen, grades received, and overall involvement in school activities.

Teachers who really know your child (even if they didn’t get the best grade)

“Don’t choose the teacher from whom you got the best grade, but the one who knows you best,” says Jody Weverka, who has been teaching high school English for more than 30 years. “You don’t have to get an A in a class. The point of the teacher recommendation is to give a sense of the student, not list their grades.”

Weverka says she works hard to capture the unique essence of each kid: How did they participate in discussions? How responsible are they? What are their strengths? What do they care about? “I understand that the letter doesn’t get the child into college, but it allows them to be seen, to be considered. It’s a chance to show who this individual is.” Sometimes she shares passages with other teachers to make sure she “got the kid right.”

Teachers who teach subjects your child wants to pursue in college

If your child wants to show academic breadth, then they might pick their honors English teacher and their economics teacher. If your child is applying to an art school, then by all means choose a fine arts teacher. Sometimes a school will give specific and even counterintuitive requirements, so be sure to look at each school’s guidance. For instance, MIT requires a recommendation from a teacher of humanities as well as from math or the sciences.

When to ask

Your child should make the initial request at the end of their junior year.

Teachers vary in terms of when they write recommendations. But as students apply to more and more colleges — and increasingly apply early decision — the letter of recommendation process has become more laborious for teachers. Asking in the spring of junior year gives teachers a chance to plan their time and prevents a teacher from saying no just because too many students have already asked them.

Give the teacher everything they need a month before the deadline.

Part of asking for letters of recommendation politely is giving the teacher the materials they need to write the letter (see below) at least a month before the letters are due. Any later isn’t fair to teachers with full-time jobs who are probably working at night and over the weekends to write these letters well.

How to ask

Ask politely and in person

“We’re happy to do it, and we’re excited to see kids go on, but it’s important for kids to acknowledge that it’s really a lot to ask of a teacher,” says Weverka. To that end, how students ask makes a difference. “Please ask in person,” she advises, “and look them in the eye.”
Weverka says this doesn’t always happen. She recalls one student simply placing papers in her box; another casually remarking “I need a letter.” Perhaps the worst: parents who sent her notes with no involvement from the kids at all.

What if the teacher says no?

Unlikely, says Weverka. “We’re probably going to say yes.” Occasionally a teacher will suggest that another teacher may have better insights into the student or the teacher may not have time given the other recommendations they’ve already committed to writing. Weverka recalls the time she had to warn a boy who had been caught cheating multiple times that her recommendation would be honest. “I said I would be happy to write a letter but it’s going to say something like ‘this student has had trouble taking responsibility and learning from his mistakes’.” He ended up asking another teacher for a recommendation.

What to give teachers

A list of schools, deadlines, and clear submission instructions

In ideal circumstances, your teen can use the Common Application for all of the schools, which streamlines things for teachers as well. But if it’s more complicated, make sure your teen gives their teachers really clear instructions: a list of the schools your teens is applying to, links to all relevant applications, and all deadlines.

“It takes 90 minutes to write a letter because they’re very individualized,” explains Weverka. “So it really helps if you don’t have to be texting the student to ask for more information.”

Pull together information that will help your teacher

Venkates stresses the importance of teens handing teachers everything they need to consider their strengths, write, and submit these letters without needing to ask for more. This additional information can take many forms — and it can make all the difference in a really personalized letter of recommendation. Weverka asks students for all their best writing back so she can recall their work and even quote from it. Student might share an art portfolio, information about challenges in their home life, commitments to community service, or other accomplishments. Some students create a resume. Venkates recommends that teens create an online profile using a tool like Lifelaunchr or LinkedIn to give teachers an easily accessible overview of their passions and pursuits.

“You want to find a way to let that person know who you really are,” says Venkates. “It helps them write a better letter.”

Thank them!

Above all, remind your child to thank their teachers — and do to so thoughtfully.
“All thanking the teacher means to me is a handwritten note, because that’s all teachers ever want is some acknowledgement,” says Weverka, who has a whole wall of thank you notes from the past 30 years of letter writing. “It’s really special to me.”

Indeed, this is the real life lesson. Letters of recommendation may be transactional and motivated by your child’s desire to go to college. But this step — thanking someone who took time out of their weekend or summer to help your child learn, someone who cares so much they may tear their clothes in grief or bedeck their walls with your child’s sentiments of appreciation — gives your kid the chance to make at least one teacher understand their value.

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Updated: April 9, 2018