About Those Recommendations…

    Part of the job of being an educator of secondary, primarily college-bound students is writing letters of recommendation.  However, it has become apparent to me in the years that I have been teaching that students often do not know the protocol for asking for letters of recommendation, and what responsibilities they have in the recommendation process.  As a result, the procedure is often more awkward and time-consuming than it necessarily needs to be. To mitigate this in the future, I have provided here both general advice and specifics with regard to me where it comes to the college recommendation.

    1.       Be careful whom you ask

    It is best to choose someone that knows you well and is (A) willing and (B) able to write a letter that will help you the most.  Do you have a good relationship with the individual?  Does he or she know you well?  If you ask the wrong individual, you could earn a bland letter or create a very awkward situation in which the individual rejects your request.  If the latter occurs, DO NOT ASK WHY.  That will only serve to exacerbate the awkwardness.  Just thank the individual for his or her time and move on.


    2.       Ask in person

    Don't send e-mails, voicemails, or text messages (unless you are getting a jump on things over the summer, in which case email is acceptable).  If you ask the person face-to-face, you demonstrate how much you value their time and indicate the significance you place on their help.  In addition, take time to go see the individual – don’t shout a request while passing in the hallway between classes.


    3.       Be considerate – ask early

    Two MONTHS before applications are due is considered appropriate. Don't wait until the last minute.  The old saying “your failure to plan ahead does not constitute an emergency on my part” is completely apropos here.  Remember two things: (A) your recommender is probably a busy person, and your recommendation is not their highest priority, and (B) your recommendation is likely not the only one he or she has agreed to write. It IS appropriate to send a polite follow-up email as the deadline approaches, but don’t be a pest.


    4.       Provide everything the recommender could possibly need

    Give your recommender a “resume” of your classes, achievements, extracurricular activities, etc. once he or she agrees to write your letter.  This is ammunition that can be used to write an effective letter – include therein information you would like to have included (Keep in mind, though, that the typical letter is one page or less – don’t expect a biography from your recommender!).   Some schools require specific forms for letter of recommendation writers.   Fill in what information you are able yourself – there is no reason the recommender has to write the school name, address, etc. when you can do it.  Many schools now use the common application.  Be sure you are aware of what will be needed from your recommender, and provide these forms, web links, etc.  If “snail mail” is to be used, always provide your writer with addressed, stamped envelopes of the appropriate size.


    5.       Waive your right to read the letter – if you don’t trust the recommender, don’t ask him or her for a letter

    Most instructors will either write you a positive letter, or no letter at all.  I cannot imagine someone being malicious enough to write a negative letter.  Waive your right to read the letter.  It is potentially offensive to the recommender, and bad form.  If you put enough thought into whom you asked to write your letter, you should trust them.


    6.        Respect the criteria of the individual recommender

    Many teachers, coaches, etc. have criteria specific to them alone as to who can ask for a letter of recommendation.  Try to find out what it is and see if you qualify before asking.  If you don’t qualify, don’t ask.  
    I require a student to have earned a ‘B’ in class and a ‘4’ on the AP test before I even consider writing a letter of recommendation. 


    7.        Scholarships and recommenders

    Applications usually go out in the fall and winter, and scholarships are usually dealt with in spring.  Though it can probably be assumed that a teacher who agrees to write you a recommendation for college will help with every school and scholarship in the entire process, it doesn’t hurt to ask again once the scholarship process comes along.  Most teachers will adapt the letter they already wrote for you to the individual scholarship; this is perfectly acceptable.


    8.       The recommender is doing you a favor

    Above all, keep in mind that the teacher, coach, tutor, boss etc. that is writing your recommendations is doing you a favor.  It is not required of anyone to do so – the individual is doing what they can to help YOU move forward by his or her own volition.  Recognize this by making the process simple, and be as helpful as possible throughout.


Last Modified on June 11, 2014