How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation for College

portrait of Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.
Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.
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An award-winning historian and writer, Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D., has published multiple scholarly articles and a book with the University of Chicago Press. She currently works as a writer and consultant. She holds a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern...
Published on September 8, 2021
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  • College applications typically require 1-3 letters of recommendation.
  • Applicants usually ask teachers and school counselors to write recommendation letters.
  • Students should create copies of their application materials for their letter writers.
  • College applicants should thank their recommenders for their help.

Prospective college students typically submit a lot of paperwork to the institutions they're applying to. On top of an application, colleges may ask for standardized test scores, a personal essay, and a resume. But unlike those materials, certain documents require outside help, including letters of recommendation.

In a 2019 survey by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, admissions officers ranked recommendations as more important than applicants' extracurricular activities, work history, and scores on AP and IB exams. While grades and standardized test scores topped the list, recommendation letters ranked alongside essays and writing samples in importance.

But who should you ask for a letter of recommendation? And how do you ask for a letter? Here's what college applicants need to know about this important part of the admissions process.

What Is a Letter of Recommendation for College?

Often written by teachers and/or school counselors, letters of recommendation help document a student's readiness for college. Most colleges ask for 1-3 letters of recommendation during the application process.

Students choose who to ask for recommendation letters. The best letter writers can speak to the applicant's academic abilities and qualifications.

Colleges use letters of recommendation to help them decide which applicants to admit. Admissions officers might differentiate between two prospective students with similar GPAs and test scores based on their recommendations. The candidate with stronger letters of recommendation might have a leg up on the competition.

Who to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation

High school seniors often ask their teachers and/or school counselors to write letters for them. Most teachers and guidance counselors have written letters before and know how to craft a compelling recommendation.

In general, it's better to ask a teacher whose class you've taken recently. Seniors often ask 11th or 12th grade teachers of core classes like math and English to write their letters.

Nontraditional students might not be able to ask former teachers or school counselors, especially if they've been out of school for a long time. In this case, you could ask a supervisor at work, a volunteering coordinator, or a mentor to write a letter on your behalf. If they're not as familiar with the process, these writers may need additional details about what to include in their letters.

Applicants who have taken college courses in the past, including transfer students, should also consider reaching out to former professors. Colleges use letters of recommendation to assess an applicant's ability to succeed at the postsecondary level. A direct recommendation from a college professor is among the strongest endorsements.

How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation in 4 Easy Steps

Asking for a letter of recommendation can feel intimidating. When should you ask for a letter, and what materials will your writer need? Read on for a step-by-step guide describing how to ask for a letter of recommendation for college.

Step 1: Prepare a List of Possible Letter Writers

If you need 1-3 recommendation letters, you should consider coming up with at least 4-5 options, just in case someone says no. Reach out to your first-choice letter writers early so you'll have time to contact backups if needed.

Step 2: Give Your Recommenders the Application Materials They Need

Most colleges use online recommendation forms, but some letter writers might prefer to submit paper documents. In addition to the form, provide clear instructions from the college on what the letter should include.

Letter writers often appreciate seeing your application materials, including transcripts and statements of purpose (even if they're still just rough drafts). Copies of your writing sample and a resume can also give writers concrete examples of your qualifications.

Prepare your application materials early so you can give a file to each letter writer to make their job easier.

Step 3: Give Your Writers Plenty of Time

Ask your letter writers well in advance of your college application deadlines. Many letter writers expect 2-3 weeks' notice at a minimum, though it's best to try to give them at least 1-2 months. You might consider asking your teachers in the late spring of your junior year so they can prepare to work on your letter in the fall.

Step 4: Make the Ask

Teachers are used to students asking for letters of recommendation. Since teachers understand the process, students can ask in person. Be prepared to follow up the conversation with an email specifying the letter requirements and including your application materials.

Students may also email teachers to ask for recommendation letters. Keep the initial email simple. Remind your teacher which class you took with them, and ask whether they'd be willing to write a letter of recommendation for you. Include key information, such as the colleges you're applying to and the respective deadlines for letters.

Once the teacher agrees, send them any additional materials you think will help them write their letter.

Letter of Recommendation Etiquette

College applicants should make it as easy as possible for their recommenders to write their letters. Always give your letter writers at least two weeks' notice, provide them with your application materials and the letter deadline, and thank them for taking the time to advocate for you.

Be sure to express appreciation to your letter writers, especially after you receive acceptances. While you don't need to get your letter writers gifts, you might consider giving them each a personalized thank you card.

If a potential letter writer says no, avoid pestering them. It's better to ask someone else than to receive a lukewarm or late letter.

By planning ahead, asking early, and preparing material for letter writers, college applicants can improve their chances of receiving strong letters of recommendation.

Feature Image: FG Trade / iStock / Getty Images Plus is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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