Teacher Letters of Recommendation
Updated: Apr 18
In April, we will work with our juniors on the process of soliciting teachers for letters of recommendation for their college applications. There is a lot of information contained here in this post, but it is our hope to pull as much as possible into digestible chunks sorted by topic. If you have additional questions, please be sure to see your counselor!
What are Recommendations?
Generally, there are two primary types of letters of recommendation: teacher letters and counselor references. There is also the possibility of getting a character reference for some colleges, a topic we will discuss later in this post. Some schools have other requirements, such as Peer References (Dartmouth College). For our purposes here, this post is primarily about teacher letters of recommendation.
Teacher Letters of Recommendation are letters of support written about the academic capabilities of a student. Various colleges have differing requirements, but our recommendation, which typically meets all possible requirements, is to obtain two letters of recommendation from junior- or senior-year teachers of full-credit, core academic subjects.
The letters themselves are single-page, typed references that provide evidence of students’ academic abilities as predictors of continued or future success in collegiate academics. Ultimately, these are positive letters that highlight students’ abilities to do work at the college level.
There is often a question of confidentiality. For students applying to the US, we require that students waive their FERPA rights, which essentially assures the college admissions offices that you are confident in your letters and will not seek to see them at any point during or after the process. We additionally ask students to waive any opportunity to review their letters. (If they do not, then the teachers have the right to decline to allow their letters to be used.)
Whom to Ask?
We recommend that students ask teachers who meet the following criteria:
they teach courses during the junior or senior year;
they teach full-credit (full-year) courses;
they teach courses in mathematics, English, history/social science, science, or world languages; and
they are able to comment on the student at his or her best.
If asking a senior-year teacher, keep in mind that there is very little time to get to know the student in the fall before applications are due, and so we discourage students from resorting to this option unless the teacher has previously taught the student in another course. Additionally, senior year teachers may not be able to complete the letters of recommendation by the stated deadline for early applications (which is typically the last Friday in September). Consequently, we recommend that students solicit two letters of recommendation from junior-year teachers.
Many colleges will not accept letters of recommendation written by teachers of courses taken before the junior year.
Keep in mind that there are exceptions to everything and that policies and practices change annually.
If applying to colleges in the US, we ask that students solicit two and only two letters of recommendation from teachers.
There is a tongue-in-cheek mantra we reference here that is applicable: “the thicker the file, the thicker the kid”! Though intended to be humorous, the reality is that when a student submits more letters of recommendation than what has been requested, it does not benefit the student. If a student submits a third teacher recommendation, the question becomes one of what the third teacher can add about the student that the other two teachers cannot. There very well may be a good answer to this questions, to be sure, but, by and large, there is not a good answer here, and so a third letter is superfluous and extraneous.
It is important to understand that there is a difference between how many recommendations a college requires and how many they will allow us to send. The numbers are not always the same! Some, for example, may require none but allow 2. In this case, we would send both available recs. Others might require 1 but allow 2; we would also send both recs to this sort of school. Generally, however, we defer to the requests of the student when making these determinations.
The Third Recommendation…
By and large, there is no reason for students to obtain more than two letters of recommendation from academic teachers.
If a student has an extracurricular activity that is particularly related to their intended field of study, some colleges might allow a third letter from this person. This might be a club sponsor or coach or a teacher of a non-core subject, for example. We would want to make sure, though, that there is good reason for students to obtain a third letter here, though.
Some students will ask for an additional letter of recommendation from a boss or supervisor from a job, internship, or other academic program over the summer or away from ISD. This is also acceptable provided that the student discusses this with his or her college counselor first.
To summarize, more is not better when it comes to letters of recommendation! Be thoughtful and judicious in selecting your letter-writers!
Required Recs by Specific Teachers?
It often comes up that a specific program at one particular college to which a student is applying requires a letter of recommendation from an applicant’s teacher of a specific subject. For example, some engineering programs might require a recommendation from a physics teacher. If the college’s application requirements cannot be met by the two solicited recommendations obtained by the student, then we advise the student solicit the assistance of the requested teacher individually at that time. If he or she agrees to support the student, we recommend that the student provide the requested teacher with the specific recommendation form provided by the college (or the Common App). This teacher should then return the completed form — rather than write an entire new letter — to College Counseling to be submitted to the college.
When to Ask?
We request that all juniors who anticipate needing letters of recommendation obtain the approval of two junior-year teachers by about May 1 (or whatever the stated deadline is determined to be).
Students relying on senior-year teachers for recommendations should ask as early as possible in the fall, but they should communicate carefully with their college counselor beforehand. Our recommendation will likely be to solicit two junior-year teachers nevertheless.
What if my applications do not require teacher letters of recommendation?
If you are applying to US colleges, there are some colleges that do not require letters of recommendation. Generally, we recommend still getting the letters of recommendation since it is so far in advance of students’ final lists being completed, and since it is incredibly rare for a student to apply to US colleges and not need letters of recommendation.
If you are applying to the United Kingdom, you do not need to solicit teachers for letters of recommendation. Your college counselor will reach out to your teachers to obtain quotations and information to populate your UK reference, which will be authored by your college counselor but contain many voices.
Universities in Canada do not require teacher letters of recommendation. Be sure to check scholarship or special program requirements, though!
Be sure to check your individual school requirements elsewhere in the world as, while there tend to be some general trends, you cannot always be certain about the requirements.
How to Ask?
This is a big, important request that students are making, and so you should reflect the gravity of the significance through how seriously you approach the request. Be respectful and thoughtful!
Keep in mind that teachers have the right to decline offers. If they do, it means that they do not feel that they are best positioned to write an entirely positive letter of recommendation for you. Take it as a blessing and move on!
When making the ask, we recommend that you do it in private. Often it is possible to linger before or after class to find the right occasion. Other times, it is wise to schedule a meeting with them during which you can make the request.
Do not ever email a request to a teacher to write a letter of recommendation on your behalf! (We are asking teachers to decline all such requests!) Do it in person!
2020 COVID-19 Modification: Please send an email sharing that you would like to discuss the possibility of asking for a letter of recommendation to your teachers with the intention of scheduling a Zoom meeting with each teacher. Be prepared for any form of conversation that the teacher might be interested in, but be sure that you are prepared to ask him/her verbally.
Be prepared to explain why you would like each teacher you ask to write on your behalf! They have the right to ask and to know!
When a teacher agrees to write a letter, the student must do two things: 1. Add the teacher into their Cialfo account; and, 2. Provide the teacher with the completed questionnaire, which can be found when the student enters the teacher into Cialfo.
Don’t be presumptuous! Please do not ask a teacher for a recommendation and then immediately hand him or her your completed questionnaire. You should fill out the questionnaire after asking for their signature!
Though this is an attempt to be as thorough as possible with the hope of anticipating as many of your questions, please be sure to seek out answers to any additional questions you might have with your counselor directly!