Tips on Choosing Who To Write Your Teacher Recommendation

Your son has just finished his junior year –  he is tired of online classes and really looking forward to summer, even though his Outward Bound trip to go white water rafting and mountain biking in Colorado has been cancelled. The last thing he wants to think about is his college applications – especially when he could not visit colleges over spring break, cannot visit them this summer and probably won’t be able to visit them in the fall.

Your daughter is distraught because she does not know whether she will be able to take her ACT this summer. She has a wonderful college list, but so far all of the colleges on her list still require standardized tests. She does not want to revise her college list; she just wants to take her ACT.

There are so many things your child cannot control in the college admissions process, even under “normal” circumstances, and these are definitely not normal circumstances! One thing they can control: choosing the teachers who will write their letter of recommendation. Conventional wisdom says students should pick teachers from different subject areas – one from math or science and one from English, social studies or foreign language. Even before Covid-19 upended conventional wisdom, this was not always the best advice. It is fine if both teachers are from STEM subjects, although your child should not pick two teachers from the exact same discipline – i.e., one math teacher and one science teacher is fine, but two math teachers is less advisable. The same logic applies to non-STEM teachers – one English teacher and one history teacher is fine, less so two English teachers.

Another piece of conventional wisdom that can be tossed: the teacher must have taught your child during their junior year. It was always OK for your child to ask a teacher who taught them as a sophomore to write a recommendation on their behalf, and this is even more so the case this year, with all its disruptions.

Your child might also think they should pick a particular teacher because they “did well” in the class. Choosing a teacher because they gave you an “A” is not the best way to pick a good reference. Your child should look at the comments they got on papers, projects and tests. Did the teacher take the time to make valuable comments, to help your child grow as a student? Teachers who make time for that are that are the teachers who will make the time to write a good letter of recommendation.

The bottom line: your child should ask the teachers who know them best, the ones with whom they have the strongest set of connections.

Once your child has decided whom they want to ask for letters of recommendation, they need to draft a polite, professional email that includes details about their experience in the teacher’s class. The key points to include in the email are a formal opening, a clear request for the recommendation, the reason the student is asking this particular teacher, and details about the student’s experience in the class. Each school may also have specific guidelines about asking a teacher for a letter of recommendation, so your child should also familiarize themselves with any school-specific requirements.

And, most importantly, your child should do this now. Teachers get busy in the fall . . . and they get a lot of requests for letters. Your child does not want a teacher to tell them they would have loved to write a letter on their behalf but cannot because the teacher has reached the maximum number of students for whom they can write letters.  Also, asking now gives the teacher time – the whole summer – to think about what to say and to write the letter in a leisurely way.

There are a lot of moving pieces in the college application process, but this is one thing your child can control and get done early. Anything done early is one less thing to worry about during the application crunch . . . and may just help to avoid an application crunch altogether!