How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation for College

Admissions experts offer advice on how to secure the strongest recommendations from the best sources.

U.S. News and World Report
February 5, 2020

By Kelly Mae Ross and Josh Moody

Letters of recommendation from teachers, school counselors and other sources can help college admissions officers get a more complete picture of applicants.

For instance, at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, a large public institution, admissions officers aren’t able to interview undergraduate applicants, says Bobbie Jean S. Huerth, the university’s associate director of application evaluation and training. So letters of recommendation are one of the few ways to learn about prospective students beyond their grades and test scores.

“We get much more of a real feeling for the student and the type of person they are and the type of student they are,” Huerth says. “That helps us picture who they might be on our campus.”

Obtaining high-quality letters of recommendation usually doesn’t happen overnight – it’s a process that takes time and planning. Here’s everything high school students need to know about how to ask for letters of recommendation for college applications.

How Many Letters of Recommendation for College Do I Need?

The number varies among colleges. Some schools don’t ask for letters of recommendation while others may require several. Students should check admissions requirements online to find the exact number, if any, a college requires.

In addition to any required recommendation letters, some colleges give applicants the option to submit supplemental letters.

It makes sense to ask for an additional letter of recommendation if it can tell the admissions committee something new about a student, says Steven Roy Goodman, an educational consultant and admissions strategist in the District of Columbia.

But admissions officers aren’t necessarily going to be impressed by a higher number of recommendations.

“We really emphasize that one quality letter of recommendation is more important than multiple, just average letters of recommendation,” Huerth says.

Whom Should I Ask to Write Letters of Recommendation?

Admissions officers generally want to see letters of recommendation from high school teachers and counselors. But some colleges have more specific requirements than others, says Adam Sapp, a senior associate dean and director of admissions at Pomona College in California.

For example, students applying to Pomona need to submit two letters of recommendation written by teachers in English, foreign languages, math, science or social sciences subjects, according to the school’s website. Teachers in what the college considers electives, such as art or journalism, can’t write the main letters of recommendation, though they can submit additional letters.

The University of Wisconsin is an example of a school with less specific guidelines. Applicants to the university need to submit one letter of recommendation from an academic source, who can be a teacher, faculty member, school counselor or adviser, according to the admissions website.

A college’s website will usually spell out the exact requirements for letters of recommendation, but Sapp says students shouldn’t be afraid to reach out to the admissions office if they have questions.

When it comes to letters of recommendation from teachers, students should approach the instructors with whom they have the best relationships, experts say. Ideally, this is someone who knows them well and can speak to both their academic and personal strengths.

Students should also make sure they’re asking recent teachers for recommendations, meaning those who taught them during the second half of high school, college experts say. This is important because students change and grow during their high school years, and admissions offices want the most current insights available, experts say.

Diversity is an additional key consideration for students requesting multiple letters of recommendation, says Cassie Poncelow, a school counselor at Poudre High School in Fort Collins, Colorado, and a finalist for the American School Counselor Association’s 2018 National School Counselor of the Year award. When students gather recommendations from teachers and others who know them in different capacities, that paints a fuller picture for admissions officers.

“If you’re a stellar math student and get two or three letters of (recommendation) from all math teachers, that doesn’t really demonstrate who you are beyond being a stellar math student,” Poncelow says.

A student with a part-time job may consider asking his or her manager for a recommendation, or athletes may think about asking their coaches, Goodman says. Such recommenders may be able to discuss some of a student’s strengths that aren’t evident in a classroom setting.

When Should I Ask for Letters of Recommendation?

Students should request letters of recommendation well in advance of an application deadline. Giving teachers, counselors and others ample time to write usually results in stronger recommendations because the writers don’t have to rush.

Poncelow says she encourages students at her high school to ask for recommendations in late spring or early summer of their junior year. This will give teachers and counselors time to work on a recommendation before seniors inundate them with requests midway through the fall.

Another reason not to procrastinate: Some teachers will commit to writing only a certain number of recommendations each year. Students who wait too long to ask may encounter teachers who have already hit their limit.

What Information Should I Provide to My Recommenders?

It’s best to ask in person for a letter of recommendation, experts says. Some high schools, however, have a process through which students request counselor recommendations online.

If a teacher or other adult agrees to write a recommendation, students should provide certain types of information that will aid both the recommender’s memory and writing process. Some high school teachers and counselors write many recommendation each year – like Poncelow, who says she pens around 60 recommendations annually – so any help a student can give them will be appreciated.

For starters, students should share information about their academic history. Poncelow says it’s helpful when students mention specific experiences and achievements, such as a particular project or paper, because they give the recommender more direction.

High schools may have a system to help with this process. Some counseling offices, for instance, ask students to complete a questionnaire to request a letter of recommendation.

Poncelow stays the form at her school consists of eight questions, including one that asks students to describe a challenging academic experience they had and how they grew as a result. Another question asks students to share their plans for the future.

Huerth says students should explain to recommenders why they are interested in a particular college. One way for students to do this, she says, is by sharing a copy of their college application essay, which may touch on this subject.

One other key piece of information to share: application deadlines.

Students can ask their recommenders how they would like to receive this and any other information they need, Goodman says. Some people may prefer email, others a printed piece of paper, while still others may want to have a brief in-person meeting.

How Do I Submit My Letters of Recommendation?

Students generally don’t submit their own letters of recommendation. Teachers, counselors and other recommenders usually send them in electronically via whichever application platform a student is using, such as the Common App.

If it’s getting close to the deadline and a recommender hasn’t submitted a letter yet, Goodman says students should ask if the person needs anything else to complete the recommendation. This approach is more polite than saying, “‘I asked you three weeks ago and you haven’t done it yet and the deadlines are coming up,’” Goodman says.

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