One of the most important and mysterious parts of college applications is the set of (usually) two teacher recommendations that act as a testimony to each student’s personality and achievement in high school. I say ‘mysterious’ because almost never, if not absolutely never, do applicants know what kind of letters they so trustingly hand off to admissions officers to speak on their behalf. Hopefully they have chosen teachers who will sing their praises and not talk about that one embarrassing time they were absurdly late to class or missed a homework assignment. What is the best way to figure out which teachers will help you impress colleges the most?
The general rule of thumb I heard from my college counselors was to ask teachers who had taught me for least two classes and preferably taught me in junior year or later at least once. That’s not always possible. I went to a small school where repeated teachers was not uncommon, but finding two teachers who you felt close to and had for multiple classes was a tough combination. At bigger schools it can be even harder. If that is a combination that you can work with for both of your recommendations, by all means go for it.
Otherwise, you need to think long and hard about other beneficial avenues you can take. Another rule of thumb that caused some issues for a humanities-and-not-at-all-a-science-and-math person like myself: Have one recommendation from a teacher in the science/math areas, and one from a humanities subject. Luckily, my advisor and short-time interim math teacher was more than willing to cover me for that (a saving grace, as the last time I got close to a math teacher after going through the trauma of math class was probably never). That’s a lie. My math teachers were lovely, but I was always too embarrassed to try and ask them to be my voice because I could never be sure how my floundering confusion ever came across in class. If this describes you, just arrange a time to meet with them and you’ll probably find that this is far from the truth and their opinion of you is a very positive one!
Which leads me to my next point – you don’t have to be so close to a teacher that you know the name of their dog and what hometown they grew up in. Being best friends is not a requirement. It can help, and if you have a teacher that you might consider another parents or other form of relative, that is fantastic. However teachers that simply know what you are like in class and have seen your work ethic (and the products that come out of it) they can still tell colleges accurate information about what they can expect from you in the next four years.
But if you do have a favorite teacher who has been a strong influence in your academic career but they maybe haven’t taught you directly since freshman or sophomore year, that can be more valuable than a teacher who only kind of knows you but had you for a class in junior year. Take my advisor for instance: she knew me more outside of the classroom than from the one class she taught me in sophomore year. I’m sure in my recommendation she explained that relationship and admissions officers knew that she was more familiar with me than even some teachers that I had for three years were. The same can be true of teachers who perhaps supervise clubs that you’re a part of, or coach extracurriculars. There will be opportunities to explain those connections on applications or in the recommendations themselves.
The key is not to be shy, to be super grateful, and to make sure the teachers you ask have sufficient information about your high school career to sell you to admissions officers in the best way possible. They all want to see you succeed as much as you do, and no matter what you decide you will find teachers who will be thrilled to help you out.