Recommendations about Recommendations
Before we make recommendations about your teacher recommendations, let's review the mistakes students commonly make when it comes to securing this crucial element of your application.
Do Not - Think of the recommendation as just another hoop to crawl through, or another box to be checked.
Do - Consider the teacher's recommendation a crucial opportunity to have an educator paint a portrait of you as a curious, skillful and talented learner.
Why does an admissions office require teacher recommendations when they already have your transcript? They want a more dimensional and holistic understanding of who you are in the classroom. A great recommendation (and we’ll talk below about the steps you need to take to get one) involves particular examples and well-chosen details that make an impression on the admissions office. The recommendation might speak to your ability to listen as well as speak in a class discussion, to assist as well as to lead in group work, and even your ability to ask for help. Best of all, the teacher can report that you asked for guidance as to where you can learn even more about the subject you are studying.
Do Not - Ask for a recommendation in the fall of the Senior year
Many students find it understandably awkward to ask for a recommendation, so they avoid asking without being fully aware of what they’re (not) doing. The next thing they know, it’s Senior year and your stomach hurts because you have to ask on such short notice - remember that you are more than likely to apply early decision or early action, so that gives the teacher less than two months. Not only are you going to be under a lot of pressure in the fall of your senior year, but so will your teachers. And if it was hard for you to ask when you were a junior, it’s going to be so much harder to ask as a senior. The teacher is going to be irritated if asked on the first day of school Senior year, and this will color the teacher’s attitude towards you in the recommendation. You will also be somewhat diminished in the teacher’s eyes when irresponsibly asking at a late date. Aside from these factors, the teacher just won’t have the time to do a good job if asked too late. The teacher will have many other letters to write, at that point in time, and will be forced to do a rush job. These letters take time if they are to be written well.
Do - Ask for a recommendation early
Once you feel a special rapport with a teacher in an academic subject (not gym or ceramics or yearbook), you should ask the teacher for a college recommendation. Even if you are a freshman, you could make this request. The teacher will be surprised and flattered to be asked early; it means you really value the teacher and the class. The teacher will more closely observe you in class and note your good qualities after you make the request and will have ample time to write a thoughtful, well-observed letter with strong examples of your curious nature, good-natured disposition, and notable abilities. The teacher will have time to write your recommendation over the summer when there is more time to think and write. A rushed recommendation will fail to make an impression on the admissions office, so even if you aced all your classes, the admissions office will choose applicants whose teachers told more vivid and memorable stories. If you want your teacher to be flattered rather than annoyed, and to have ample time to write about how wonderful you are, ask early.
Don’t - Ask the teacher in a perfunctory or rude manner. And especially don’t try to TELL the teacher they are writing your recommendation
A teacher is not obliged to write a student a recommendation. The applicant should remember that they are asking for a favor, and approach the teacher in a respectful manner, recognizing all that is on the teacher’s plate - grading, planning, writing many recommendations, perhaps even living a life - as they ask for a recommendation.
Do - Plan your request
Plan what you are going to say, following a simple formula:
make your request in a formal email
start by recalling specific things you learned and enjoyed in the teacher’s class
acknowledge how busy the teacher is
ask if the teacher would be able to write you a recommendation.
If you follow this formula, the teacher is not only very likely to say yes, but also will be very favorably disposed towards you, which will color the recommendation that the teacher writes. Of course, be sure to thank the teacher sincerely if they agree to recommend you.
Do Not - Think you should necessarily ask the teacher who taught your most challenging course
Do - Ask a teacher who knows you well, respects you, and knows how to write
Because the teacher recommendation should create an effective holistic portrait of the applicant in the classroom, you need to select the right teacher with care. Ask your college guidance counselor for advice. The college counseling office reads over all of the recommendation letters before they go out, and will know who takes the recommendation very seriously and does a good job of creating a memorable portrait of the applicant.
Also, you might want to consider a teacher who has had you twice and can describe your growth, or a teacher who has taught you in the classroom AND advised you in another capacity, such as debate, math club, or student government.
Do - Check the box that denies you the ability to read the letter.
Checking that box demonstrates your confidence in a positive recommendation, and liberates your teacher from worrying about how you might react to something they write. You want this to be an honest portrait that describes your struggles as well as your triumphs. If the teacher can demonstrate, for example, that you have learned how to ask for help, that will increase the admissions officer’s confidence that you will be able to cope with college-level work.
Finally, and this can be difficult, ask your teacher nicely if you can pass along the guidance you’ve received from this post. Many teachers don’t really know what a letter of recommendation should be. They might simply affirm that your grades were good, that you turned your work in on time, and that you were well-behaved. That is NOT what the admissions office is looking for. Again, you want your teacher to create a portrait of you as a learner, using particular examples and addressing not your grades but your curiosity, your particular talents, your enthusiasm, your contributions in the classroom, your ability to work with others, and your resilience.
Make your recommendations count! If you want more particulars about the recommendation or the process, contact Bentham Admissions.