Letter of Recommendation Tips for Nontraditional Students

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Updated on November 16, 2021
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  • Many colleges require 1-3 letters of recommendation to go with an application.
  • Nontraditional students can ask former instructors, mentors, and supervisors for letters.
  • Keep your initial request brief, and be sure to provide follow-up information.

Going back to school as a nontraditional student is a big decision that can boost your career opportunities and lead to higher wages. One of the first steps on this journey is applying to colleges — a process that normally includes asking for letters of recommendation.

College applications often require 1-3 recommendation letters. Traditional students applying during their senior year in high school typically ask their school guidance counselor and current teachers for these letters. But applicants who've been out of school several years may need to get more creative.

Colleges often accept letters of recommendation from supervisors, former instructors, and mentors. Adult learners can also reach out to former volunteer coordinators, coaches, and professional colleagues.

Once you've put together a list of possible letter writers, you still need to figure out the best way to ask for a recommendation letter. How can you increase your chances of securing strong letters for college? The process starts by thinking strategically about your letter writers.

How to Ask a Former Teacher for a Letter of Recommendation

Some colleges require or strongly prefer a letter focusing on an applicant's academic skills. While a supervisor or mentor generally cannot meet this requirement, applicants may reach out to previous instructors, even if they've been out of school many years.

Nontraditional students — especially those who finished high school in the past five years — should strongly consider asking former high school teachers for letters of recommendation. Instructors can often assess an applicant's qualifications for postsecondary education more directly than a supervisor or mentor can.

Additionally, if you completed some college coursework at any time, prioritize getting letters from former professors who can speak directly to your performance in higher-level classes.

Before reaching out to instructors, put together a file of materials to help your letter writer. This file should include instructions for the recommendation letter, an unofficial high school transcript (and/or a college transcript, if applicable), and a rough draft of your personal statement.

Many instructors work with hundreds of students each year, so provide any materials that will jog their memory about you. These can include essays you submitted for their class, midterm or final grades, and details about your time in their class.

Sample Email 1: Former College Instructor

Dear Dr. Smith,

I enrolled in your college algebra class in 2019. I am applying to the University of Georgia and need a recommendation letter from a former instructor. Would you be willing to write a strong letter for me? I can provide my application materials and grades from your class, as well as any additional materials you may need.

Thank you for your time.


Megan Richards

Sample Email 2: Former High School Teacher

Dear Ms. Britton,

I took honors biology with you back in 2017. Since then, I've worked in various allied health roles. I am planning to return to college to pursue my nursing degree this fall. Would you consider writing a letter of recommendation for my applications? I can send you a draft of my admissions essay and a copy of my resume. I'm also available to chat over the phone or in person if you'd like to discuss the letter in more detail.

Thank you for your consideration. I hope to hear from you soon!


Joshua Nakayama

How to Ask a Supervisor for a Letter of Recommendation

Asking for a letter of recommendation from someone outside the education field often requires a bit more effort. While supervisors may know how to assess their employees' performance, they usually have less practice than teachers when it comes to writing letters of recommendation for college.

When asking a supervisor for a letter, provide clear guidance on what to include and focus on. See whether they feel comfortable commenting on things like your organizational skills, your ability to work independently, and your leadership potential.

You might request a letter that conveys your dedication to a certain project. Teamwork, communication skills, resilience, and other key soft skills also make for good letter topics.

The same goes for volunteer coordinators and internship supervisors. If you took on a leadership role or managed a project, ask your letter writer to discuss those examples in their letter.

Don't forget to prepare helpful materials for your letter writer. This file should include instructions from the college, the deadline, and your application materials.

How to Ask a Mentor for a Letter of Recommendation

Mentors can comment on applicants' personal qualities and their preparedness for college, potentially making them strong letter writers. You may find it easier to ask your mentor for a letter rather than a teacher or supervisor.

Many of the same general rules apply when asking a mentor for a letter of recommendation. Keep the initial request brief, and provide information about the requirements and deadline. If your mentor agrees, give them a file with your essay and other application materials. Make sure you ask your mentor to reference specific examples in their letter.

Additionally, keep in mind that some schools do not accept letters of recommendation from relatives, even if they serve as mentors.

3 Strategies for Securing Recommendation Letters

Asking for recommendation letters as a nontraditional student can be challenging. You may have to ask several instructors, supervisors, or mentors before you're able to secure the 1-3 letters you need for college. Use the following tips to raise your chances of securing strong letters.

Take a Community College Class

If you've been out of school many years, consider taking a community college class or two in your prospective major. In addition to earning transfer credits, you can ask the instructor for a recommendation letter.

Consider Your Biggest Advocates

Think strategically about who might write you a strong letter. Remember, you don't want just any letter when applying to college — you want a strong, compelling, and convincing letter that spells out your biggest strengths and accomplishments.

For example, if you have a better relationship with a former volunteer coordinator than you do with your supervisor at work, you might consider reaching out to the volunteer coordinator first.

Give Your Writers Ample Time

Make it easier for your letter writers to say yes. Ask at least 2-3 weeks before the deadline, provide clear instructions, and offer to meet with them to discuss the letter.

A resume, papers submitted in their class, and/or a list of your academic and professional accomplishments can help letter writers build a strong case for your admission.

Feature Image: Geber86 / E+ / Getty Images

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