The Scoop on Teacher Letters of Recommendation

[fa icon="calendar"] 9/20/16 9:02 AM / by Crystal Liu

The time has finally come - college application season. You’ve taken the standardized tests, formulated your college list, and started scanning the essay prompts. Next up on the list is asking for letters of recommendations from your teachers. Here we’ll answer the whats, whos, whens, and other details about teacher recommendations.

An Overview

Many colleges require one or more teacher letters of recommendation. Admissions counselors may have to review hundreds or even thousands of student applications. Your letters of recommendation help to bring a face to the name. Beyond the black and white numbers of your grades and test scores, your teachers may have illuminating details about your intellectual enthusiasm, teamwork ability, and creativity that help to personalize your application.

Your teachers spend multiple hours a week with you. They review your homework, edit your essays, and grade your tests. Over the course of an entire year, they get a solid look into the type of student you are and what you bring to a classroom. That look is what counselors want to see and find out - How will you contribute to their college?

Who should I ask?

In the end, you want to ask the teachers who know you best and who will joyfully advocate for your strengths as a student and an individual. If you slump into their class every morning half-asleep and work on other homework during lectures, don’t ask that teacher even if you got an A. Consider which teachers would be most likely to write about your motivation to learn, your passion for history, or whatever it may be that you are trying to project through your application.

There are a number of other factors to consider when selecting who to ask for a recommendation letter - class subject, grade, and teacher ability.

  1. Class subject: It’s preferable that you ask teachers in core subjects like English, social studies, math, science, or a foreign language.
  2. Grade: Colleges like to see recommendation letters from junior or senior year teachers. Junior year is generally better because your teacher has had you recently and has an entire year’s worth of time with you to write about. Senior teachers will only have had a handful of months by the time they’re writing the essay, and sophomore or freshman teachers may not remember a student from that long ago.
  3. Teacher ability: Does your teacher have a reputation for writing fantastic letters of recommendation? Do you know that they are already scrambling to churn out recommendation letters for other students? These details may persuade you to ask or not ask a specific teacher. Make sure to ask in-person at least one month in advance to give them adequate time to prepare the letter.

Of course, there are always exceptions. Perhaps you have a teacher who doesn’t teach a core subject (maybe psychology or music theory), but your relationship with them is incredibly strong and your gut is screaming at you that they’re the perfect fit when it comes to writing a recommendation letter. Ask them. Maybe you want to ask a teacher you had sophomore year because you’ve kept up close contact with them and now they’re the advisor of the club you are president of. Ask them. Use your judgement to make the best call.

The Brag Sheet

The process of asking for recommendation letters differs for each school. In some cases, your school may ask you to fill out a type of ‘brag sheet’ that digs a bit more into your motivations, goals, and personality. It provides a cheat sheet of sorts that the teacher can work off of if they want to. Brag sheet questions may fall along lines like:

  1. What are some of your passions?  
  2. What major(s) are you interested in and why?
  3. What do you consider to be your proudest academic accomplishment?
  4. How would you describe yourself? What are your best qualities?
  5. What historical events, people, literature, or classes have had an impact on you and how?
  6. What is your philosophy of life?

Answer every question to the best of your ability. Even if you don’t think your teacher will use it or needs to use it, fill it out anyway. Just the process of answering some of the questions help you to explore the type of person you are and the type of person you want to become. Outside of applying to colleges, it allows for important self-reflection that we don’t often get the chance to immerse ourselves in.

Just how important are they?

The importance of letters of recommendation vary for each college and also depend on your high school experience. If you attend a high school with a large student population where an individual relationship with your counselor is not as likely, then colleges understand that your counselor letter of recommendation may be less personal and instead turn to your teacher recommendations for a better glimpse into who you are. If your grades dipped in a certain class or semester, the teacher writing your letter of recommendation could help explain the reason (perhaps you were sick or had a disruptive life event occur).

Remember that your recommendations are only one piece of the jigsaw puzzle that forms your application. Even with amazing recommendations, it’s still crucial to keep in mind other factors like your grades, standardized test scores, essays, extracurricular activities, admissions interview, etc. On the other hand, it’s also important to keep in mind that a mediocre recommendation probably will not single-handedly make or break you.

For a closer look at how individual colleges consider letters of recommendation, sign up for free to the Empowerly Portal to examine 18 different admissions variables across US colleges, including letters of recommendation. On a scale of 1 (not considered) to 4 (very important), you’ll find that colleges are all across the board in how they rank letters of recommendation.

If you are looking for additional guidance and resources on the college admissions process, feel free to reach out to us at Empowerly here to contact a college admissions expert who can provide you with help getting into the college(s) of your choice.

Topics: Recommendation letters

Crystal Liu

Written by Crystal Liu

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