It’s a misconception that students don’t have any control over the content of their letters of recommendation. It is also incorrect to assume that every letter will be at least somewhat positive.

Luckily, there are simple steps students can take to ensure the highest quality letters.

Establish Relationships Early On

The relationship you have with your recommender should be built over time, through small, consistent actions. Talk about your interests, show genuine curiosity for their subject, and make sure to follow up. It may be uncomfortable at first, but remember: educators are here to help you learn and grow. If they were uninterested in your development, they wouldn't have become teachers in the first place!

Let Your Authentic Self Shine Through

Don't make a sales pitch! It’s going to be very hard for your recommender to give an honest letter of support if they never really get to know you.

Be Discerning About Whom You Ask

You shouldn’t simply ask the teachers who gave you the highest grades. Before you make your move, be reflective and strategic. Do you have a value or skill that’s hard to represent in your application and that a recommender might be able to illuminate? Are there concerns about particular areas of your application that could be offset by your recommender addressing them? Think about ways to add balance and depth to your narrative that can only be expressed through external observation.

Make it a Conversation

Who are you, and who do you want to become? What are your strengths, passions, and shortcomings? And most importantly, what does this next step in your education mean to you? These are all areas that should be discussed with a recommender before they write a letter. And feel free to be direct: if you think your history professor can speak to your quick wit and evaluative skills because of your involvement in the debate club they supervise, tell them that!

Request Recommendations Well in Advance

You should not be asking for recommendations as your deadlines approach; your recommender, like you, will get busier over the course of application season. This means you must think ahead: ask for academic letters before the end of junior year. Let your potential recommenders know your plans, how many schools you intend to apply to, and why specifically you are asking them to speak on your behalf. And always make sure to follow up with that person to remind them about deadlines. Once the submissions have been confirmed, send a thoughtful thank you letter and breathe a sigh of relief.

Timeline for Recommendations

If you are just beginning to think about college recommendations now, please use the timeline below to guide you through this process:

Junior Year, May - June:

  • Approach teacher(s) and ask to speak with them about letters of recommendation.
  • In that meeting, tell them about your college plans and why you feel they are the best person to speak on your behalf.
  • If you have a sense of the number of schools or types of institutions you will be applying, let your teacher(s) know.
  • Follow up with a letter or email thanking them for their time (even if they decline to write you a recommendation!).

Senior Year, August - September:

  • Follow up with your teacher(s). Ask how their break was and confirm that they are still able to provide you with a recommendation.
  • Let them know how you spent your summer and whether anything has changed in your college search process. Additionally, let them know your timeline for college applications. If you are applying to a school Early Decision, your recommenders need to know!

Senior Year, November - December:

  • Once your letters have been uploaded, send another thank you letter to your recommenders. Make sure to update them as you begin to receive acceptances!

For more tips on letters of recommendation, check out our Guide to College Admissions!