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4 Steps to Great Letters of Recommendation

Colleges ask for letters of recommendations because they value the information a well-written recommendation letter says about a prospective student. Letters reveal things about you that static grades and test scores cannot, provide personal opinions from a professional and can reveal positive aspects of your character.

Step 1: Know what you need.

  • The University of California, California State Universities and many other large public institutions do not accept recommendation letters.

  • For schools that do, plan on a minimum of two letters from teachers and one from your high school counselor. There are a few schools that might require three.

  • Sometimes the letters are optional and sometimes not even required. Our suggestion is to submit one if you have a strong relationship with a teacher.

Step 2: Who should you ask and when?

  • Don’t automatically pick the teacher in the class in which you have an A. Some of the best letters come from teachers you had to ask for help during lunchtime or after school.

  • Think about your areas of interest. For example, if you are planning to major in a STEM field, at least one teacher should be from that discipline.

  • Having a balance of one math or science and one English, history or foreign language teacher is a good idea for most students.

  • Consider asking teachers you’ve had more than once—a freshman and junior foreign language teacher can speak to your development as a student and a young adult.

  • If you’re an arts student, consider asking your band, choral or theater teacher. Many schools allow non-academic, optional recommendation letters. If you have a job or are an athlete, including your boss or coach is also appropriate. Remember these people are in addition to, not a replacement for, the required recommendations.

  • Ask your teachers politely, in person and in late spring (May) of junior year.

Step 3: Follow your school’s protocol.

If your school uses Naviance, check under the “About Me” tab to see if there is a specific survey that needs to be filled out by you and possibly, your parent/guardian.

If your school does not have a packet or questionnaire of their own, it’s your job to give your teachers enough information to be able to write you a letter. We suggest providing them with a note that includes one or more of the following:

  • Why you selected this particular teacher;

  • Highlights of your class achievements, or areas you worked to improve;

  • A description of a meaningful experience in the course, and how it impacted your work;

  • What you plan to study or your interest areas; and anything else they should know about you. Be sure to include an expression of thanks!

  • When you ask the teachers, be prepared to give them a copy of your note or questionnaire, and a résumé or extra-curricular activities list so they get an idea of all that you do outside of the classroom.

  • Provide them with the application deadlines for the schools to which you are applying.

Step 4

  • Thank them, thank them and thank them. Be sure to express your genuine appreciation for the work they’re doing on your behalf.

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