52 Weeks to College: Week 18

Everything you need to know about asking teachers to write college recommendations, one step at a time...
May 3, 2021

Lining Up Your Recommenders

You are coming into the home stretch of the school year. Whew!

It has been a rocky ride thanks to the pandemic, but one of the great things about a school year is that it does end.

Last week we gave you a checklist of things that you want to handle before the last day of school. One of the things on that list was to ask two teachers if they are willing to be recommenders for you.

Since you probably haven’t done this before, we thought it would be helpful to walk you through how to do it. It isn’t hard, but there is a bit of an art to it.


1. You have to decide whom you are going to ask.

There is a core set of recommendations that will be required in one combination or another for virtually every college that uses holistic admissions (aka the selective colleges). That core set consists of a counselor recommendation and one or two teacher recommendations. So we recommend that you ask two teachers to make sure you have what you need to apply to any college on your final list.

When it comes to teachers, admissions officers at top colleges are most interested in hearing from teachers who have taught you in a core academic subject — Language/Literature (English or other), Mathematics, Science, or History/Social Studies) — in 11th grade. In other words, the teachers you have now!

Which two of these teachers would be your best recommenders? Choose the two teachers who know you well, who can speak about your positives and negatives based on direct experience, and who like you.

If you have significant negatives to overcome (e.g. very low grades, a disciplinary or criminal record), consider whether one of your teacher recommenders could address these negatives based on their knowledge of and experience with you. If not, your counselor will be the recommender who addresses these issues and you should think about trying to schedule an online one-on-one meeting to discuss them now.

2. You have to ask.

Currently, the best way to ask is via an email. Compose the email in a way that reflects that you are approaching the college application process with great seriousness and allows for a gracious “out” should the teacher not be willing or able to write you a positive recommendation.

It doesn’t need to be long. In fact, this short three sentence email would do the trick:

Dear Mr. Smith:

I am writing to ask if you are willing to be one of my recommenders for college. Are you able to write a positive recommendation for me? Please let me know at your earliest convenience.

Thank you.
Sam Jones

However, if you are going to ask a recommender to help you overcome a negative aspect of your record, you need to include that request in your email as well. You could write a longer email with language something like this:

Dear Mr. Smith:

I am writing to ask if you are willing to be one of my recommenders for college. One of the reasons that I was particularly hopeful that you would be willing to write my recommendation is because you know how I have worked to make up for my poor performance in 9th and 10th grades and really turned things around in 11th grade. Are you able to write a positive recommendation for me that would address that?

Please let me know at your earliest convenience.

Thank you.
Sam Jones

3. Follow up if necessary.

You should receive a response to your request within a couple of days. If you don’t, send a follow-up email that has a gracious nudge in it. Something like this strikes the right tone:

Dear Mr. Smith:

I’m just following up on my email requesting that you write a recommendation for me when I apply to college next year. Did you receive it and have you had a chance to think about my request? If you could let me know, I’d really appreciate it.

Sam Jones

4. Reply with a confirming email.

Whether Mr. Smith says yes or no, you need to conclude the exchange with a confirming email.

If Mr. Smith replies with a “Yes,” then your confirming email can be something along these lines:

Dear Mr. Smith:

Thank you so much for agreeing to be a recommender for me. I’ll follow up in the fall when my list is finalized and provide you with any supporting information you need. Will this email be the best way to reach you?

Thanks again.
Sam Jones

If Mr. Smith replies with a “No,” don’t plead your case. Trust us, you do not want to have to talk someone into writing you a good recommendation; the ambivalence will always come through in the recommendation. And don’t lose sleep over it – there are any number of reasons a teacher might say no. Simply move on to another teacher who is excited to write on your behalf. But before you do, respond with a courteous email thanking him for considering your request. Here’s straightforward language you can use:

Dear Mr. Smith:

I’m disappointed that you cannot write a recommendation for me, but I appreciate that you considered my request.

Thank you.
Sam Jones

Once you’ve gotten a “Yes” from two teachers, you’re all set. That’s one more thing you’ve done that will make next fall saner. Hooray for you!

Anna Ivey is one of the founders of Inline. An experienced admissions consultant and a frequently cited media expert on the topic of college admissions, she is also co-author of the college admissions bible How to Prepare a Standout College Application. Learn more about Anna's background here.

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