Image from Stocksnap

Image from Stocksnap

If you were anything like me in high school, you probably panicked when you realized you had to ask for letters of recommendation upon applying for college. As a high school student whose parents stressed the importance of getting into a good college, I knew this early on. Despite this, I still shied away from forming good relationships with my teachers. I just was not the type of person to be the teacher’s pet — I was soft spoken and shy.

Still, I had hoped that my decent grades would get me into the colleges that I want without having to ask a teacher for a letter of recommendation. Unfortunately, this was not the case, as is probably also with you. A few weeks into my senior year, I finally mustered up the courage to ask my teachers for a letter — and in this post, I will tell you how I did it.

1. Sit down and think about your junior and sophomore year.

If you weren’t the type of student to raise your hand at every chance you get in your classes, don’t worry! Teachers are trained not only to acknowledge these outgoing extroverts, but also to recognize that there are students who are just as smart who are not the type of people to overtly share their ideas. Think…Maybe there was a class in which you were really quiet, but helped a lot of students in. Chances are that the teacher noticed that you are more comfortable talking to your similarly-aged peers.

For example, maybe you did not raise your hand a lot in pre-calculus to give the answer, but maybe your teacher noticed that you earned good grades in his or her tests and quizzes and that her other students usually went to you for help. A good teacher would recognize this and certainly write about this in a letter about you!

2. Choose two or three teachers you know would write a great albeit honest letter about you.

So if you were able to think of which teachers can be candidates based on #1, you should still be careful on who you should choose to write a letter about you. Remember, you are not likely to see a letter that a teacher wrote about you so the aforementioned teacher is free to write whatever he or she wants about you. Teachers have an obligation to be completely honest, but a teacher who is extremely fond of you will praise you in his or her letter. Choose teachers who are more likely to talk about your strengths.

It is also important to have a well-written letter of recommendation. My advanced placement language and composition teacher in junior year said that colleges tend to prefer letters written by history or language teachers since those letters are more likely to be better in conveying messages. While I do not necessarily agree that students should only ask history or language teachers (I had a chemistry teacher from whom I was delighted to ask for a letter of recommendation for a scholarship — I had no doubt whatsoever of her writing) I have to concede that a well-written letter is greatly in your favor.

3. Ask nicely in person, approach them when they are not currently teaching.

Now comes the hard part, at least to me, as someone who is painfully introverted. Now, I hate small talk. I like to be concise and straight to the point. Teachers can almost always tell if a student is about to ask them for a letter of recommendation, so while it saves time just to come right out and ask them, it is polite to start conversation first, and then ask. I know that when I asked for my first letter (from my history teacher in junior year), my teacher and I talked a little bit about how I did really well on the AP exam for her class (which I now realize, in retrospect, is twofold: one is for the sake of small talk, and the other is to give her an idea of what to say in her letter about me). After that, I casually brought up college and asked her if she could write a letter of recommendation for me. As expected, she was not surprised. Your teacher should not be either.

It goes without saying that you should not interrupt their current class to ask for a letter of recommendation. If the teacher is not understanding, then he or she might think you are rude. I think it is best to ask before or after school, when your teacher’s attention is not divided between her class and you.

4. Email them within 24 hours of all the things that they need.

Often, colleges will require your teacher to upload their letter in a certain website. Be sure to give them all the details (website address, your applicant identification information, etc.) so that they won’t have a hard time looking for the details themselves. After all, it is important to acknowledge that teachers do this on their own time (see #5!). Make sure you get this information to your teacher as soon as possible after asking them (otherwise, there may be a chance that they forget).

If your college requires that teachers snail mail their letters to an address associated with the college, then it is only polite to provide the teacher with an already labeled envelope and a stamp. You should not expect teachers to spend money (albeit a small amount as stamps and individual envelopes don’t cost that much) since that they are already doing you a favor by writing your letter.
Also, remember that teachers are allowed to send in the same letter of recommendation to multiple colleges and scholarships. Don’t be afraid to ask again, just be polite about it.

5. Do not forget to send them a thank-you note and a gift!

After you send in your application (including supplements) and your teacher uploads his or her letter, you’re done (at least for the time-being, you still have to wait for your decision)! That relief after sending applications is often one of the best feelings ever. However, do not forget about your awesome teacher who wrote you a letter of recommendation!

Like I said, they wrote your letter on their own time, and chances are they wrote letters for multiple people like you. It probably took them at least some time to write about you, so you should feel obligated to send them a thank you note and a gift (regardless of whether or not you got into the college or got the scholarship). Some gift ideas are gift cards to a spa or a mug, but it doesn’t hurt to be creative and get something that specifically caters to their interests and even the class that they teach (someone gave my chemistry teacher a single ceramic pear and called it a “lone pear.” Get it?)

Follow these steps and you’ll be golden when asking for letters of recommendation! Remember, don’t be shy and the worst that can happen is that they say no. If that’s the case, understand that some teachers are inundated with work already and simply may not have any free time to write a letter about you. It doesn’t mean that you should stop liking them!

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