Ultimate Guide to Letters of Recommendation for College Applications

What are letters of recommendation and why are they important to the college admissions process?

Letters of recommendation are like job reference letters written by counselors and/or teachers that give college admissions an idea of an applicant's personality, beyond just the numbers. These letters provide admission committees with another third-person perspective that allows them to see whether the way that you are portraying yourself on the application seems genuine or not. Stellar letters often highlight the strengths of an applicant, confirm their personality traits, and vouch that they would succeed in college.

Most colleges ask for a letter of recommendation from your counselor. Your counselor evaluates you and puts you in the context of your whole school. They report information such as your transcripts, school environment, how many AP classes are offered, and data that help colleges see the context that you were in. 💡REMEMBER: Colleges understand that different high schools have different types of opportunities offered to students. This is why a counselor recommendation is important for the admission committee to assess your application fairly.

Along with a counselor recommendation, selective colleges often ask for a letter of recommendation from 1 to 2 teachers.

This raises an important question... who would be the best people to advocate for me?

Who should I ask for a letter of recommendation?

Before you delve into who to ask specifically, you will need to filter through all your teachers and create a small list.

1️⃣ First of all, think about all the teachers that you have had recently. Colleges generally ask for teachers from 11th or 12th grade because they want to learn about the "latest version" of you. Though it is not a hard-fast rule, it would be wise to stick to junior year and senior year teachers because you have most likely evolved as a person and you are probably not the same as how your freshman year and sophomore year teachers would describe you.

2️⃣Now think about what subjects these teachers teach. Colleges that ask for two teachers often recommend one being from the STEM 🧬and the other from humanities 📖.

Science/Math Classes (STEM)Humanities/social science classes
ForensicsForeign Language
Computer ScienceEnglish
Math (preferably advanced one)Government
Physics History

There are definitely more classes than this but make sure to pick one teacher from each side. The reasoning behind this is that colleges want to see that you excel in both STEM and humanities.

Many students ask whether they can get a letter from two science teachers, for example. If you know that these two teachers will write you amazing letters, then ask them. BUT, make sure to check the college's website to see whether or not they recommend letters from two academic areas. For example, MIT recommends that one letter be from a math/science teacher and the other from a humanities/social science/language teacher. Therefore, it would be wiser to ask another teacher instead, especially since the college recommends it.

3️⃣Now try to answer the following questions:

  1. Which teachers may have been a part of an extracurricular that you are passionate about? For example, do you know a teacher who may have been your biology teacher and your advisor for the Science Olympiad team?
  2. Which teachers knew you on a personal level? Is there a classroom that you love spending time in? Have you told personal details about your life outside of school with any teachers? Does this teacher truly know how you behave or what you are passionate about? 💡REMEMBER: Ask someone who can speak to your personality, not the teacher that gave you the best grades (ideally it would be both).
  3. Is there a class that you truly took the initiative to improve yourself and the teacher sees your efforts?

Answering these questions are important because you want teachers who will truly advocate for how great you are as a person.

Now that you have an idea of which teachers to ask, how are you going to ask them?

How do I ask for a letter of recommendation?

Here are some important things to remember before asking :

  • Teachers are very busy. They have homework and tests to grade, lessons to create, and much more. Therefore, it is highly recommended that you ask your teachers (and counselor) well before the deadline.
  • Some teachers are quite popular, so they may have multiple students approaching them, so be an early bird!
  • Teachers are not required or paid to write you a letter of recommendation. Therefore, it is important to ask someone who you would trust to take the time to write you a great letter and ask them politely.

You can either ask your teacher in person or send them an email like the following sample:

Dear [teacher],

How are you doing?

My name is [your name] and I was in your [class name] class last year. I am applying to go to [name of university] and I have been asked to provide a letter of recommendation from a teacher. I would greatly appreciate if you could write this letter for me.

[insert your intended college major and future aspirations]

I have attached my transcripts and brag sheet. The deadline for the application is [deadline date].

I know how busy you are and I thank you for taking the time to write this letter for me. If there is any other information that I can provide, please don't hesitate to email me.


[your name]

Obviously, your request doesn't have to look like this exactly, but this is a good template that covers all the essential information that your teacher needs to write you a letter.

💡REMEMBER to provide:

  1. the college you are applying to
  2. your intended major/ career goals
  3. transcripts (or something that shows your academic excellence)
  4. resume/brag sheet (or something that showcases your involvement in clubs or your achievements or jobs) (schools sometimes have their own types of brag sheets that students fill out)
  5. deadline date

❤️Make sure to send a thank-you note to your teacher(s) for their time and efforts! ❤️

Check out this guide for more advice on how to ask for letters of recommendation!

What is the FERPA waiver and why is it important for letters of recommendation?

FERPA stands for Family Education Rights and Privacy Act. Essentially, it protects the privacy of student records and allows you to view letters of recommendation.

The Common App, for example, will ask you whether you would like to waive your FERPA rights.

If you waive your rights, you are letting the colleges know that you WILL NOT read the letters of recommendation (which will make the letters more credible in the eyes of the admissions officers)

If you don't waive your rights, teachers and counselors may feel less inclined to write your letter and will feel as though you don't trust them.

It is generally recommended to waive your FERPA rights, but it is ultimately up to your discretion.

Good luck in college admissions!

Next, check out these guides about preparing for college interviews, choosing a major, and finishing strong!

For a PDF version of this guide, click here!

Check out these other guides that you might need.