The basics: letters of recommendation, thank you notes

Question: I am a junior and am unsure about how to get letters of recommendation from my teachers. How do I go about doing this?

Answer: This it the right time of year to be thinking about which teachers you want to ask for a letter of recommendation. Since teachers write these letters on their own time, they may limit the number of student letters they write. You want to be asking one or more of your junior year teachers as colleges are interested in your recent academic ability and prefer teachers from your junior or senior year who taught your main core academic subjects. I am often hesitant to consider senior year teachers if you are applying under early action or early decision deadlines as they would have had very little time to get to know you as a student before writing their letter. Students are often under the misconception that they must get a letter from a math/ science teacher and one from an English/ social science teacher. Ideally, you would ask someone who could address your academic ability in an area relevant to your intended major, such as a math or physics teacher if you are interested in engineering, but for a student who is undecided, there are no specific rules other than finding teachers who will highlight your strengths. Many schools only require that you have one teacher recommendation and allow you to include other recommenders such as employers, coaches or religious leaders who know you outside the school setting.

I generally advise students to consider asking teachers who can speak not only to your intellectual capacity and critical thinking skills but also can attest to your passions and character. This might not necessarily be the class where you received your top grades but one where you showed resilience and motivation to work on any academic challenges you faced. Ideally you showed intellectual curiosity and were an active participant that brought something to the academic conversation in the classroom.  You also want to consider which teachers you deem most reliable and can do the best job writing more than your stock generic letter.

I recommend that you ask your teachers in person so that you can gauge the reaction of the teacher and judge if your teacher is likely to write a very favorable letter on your behalf. As a student, you will be asked to waive your rights to read this letter as this ensures that the teachers’ comments will be seen as credible and reliable. Assuming the teacher agrees, you would want to ask him or her if they require any specific forms beyond what is traditionally used by their high school. You should follow-up with a list of the colleges you are applying to and their deadlines along with a short cover letter thanking them for their support and a brief self-reflective paragraph on why you believe you have the qualifications and or interest to attend the schools on your list. You might also want to include any work in the class that you are proud of, what you learned in the class and any challenges you overcame. Lastly, you will want to give these teachers a copy of your resume so they can discuss any extracurricular involvement that might be relevant to your application.

Most importantly, please send your teachers, counselors and outside recommenders a handwritten note, again thanking them for the time they put forth writing you this letter and make the time to follow-up with them once you have your college decisions in hand.

Joan Franklin is the owner of MI College Support, an independent college counseling practice (www.micollegesupport.org). She can be reached at (206) 232-5626


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