Step-By-Step Guide to Get Impressive Letters of Recommendation

💡 Overview

Letters of recommendation (LOR or "letters of rec") give college admissions an idea of an applicant's personality, beyond just the numbers. (You can check what colleges require regarding LORs by googling application requirements or finding it on your application portal.)

It's best to ask for letters at the end of junior year or the very beginning of senior year.

Types of Letters of Recommendation

  • Guidance counselor
  • Academic teacher (2)
  • Optional supplemental letters

Why do I need a letter from my guidance counselor?

Your counselor evaluates you and puts you in the context of your whole school. Their school report provides information such as your transcripts, school environment, number of AP classes are offered, and data that help colleges see the context that you were in.

Benefits of Letters of Recommendations 📝

  • They allow colleges to learn more about you as an applicant.
  • They provide the college admissions committee information about you on a more personal level beyond your GPA, transcripts, and test scores.
  • If the admissions committees are between two applicants, they might look to letters of recommendation to help them make their decision, so having a glowing letter of recommendation helps you stand out as an applicant!

👥 Choosing Who to Ask

First, 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.

Secondly, think about what subjects these teachers teach. Is the program you're applying to relevant to a teacher’s expertise? In general, colleges that ask for two teachers often recommend one being from STEM and the other from humanities/social sciences.

Now try to answer the following questions:

  1. Who can speak to your strengths both academically and as a person? Think about what your relationships are like with each teacher and who knows you best.
  2. Does this teacher truly know how you behave or what you are passionate about?
  3. Is there a class that you truly took the initiative to improve yourself and the teacher sees your efforts?
  4. 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?

Do not add any more than 2 supplemental "other" letters of rec! You never want to add anything "redundant". The extra letters of rec are truly optional; only add more if they provide more, unseen information to who you are as an applicant.

💁 Creating "Brag" Sheets

Brag sheets showcase your involvement in clubs, your achievements, and/or your jobs. You should always send one to your recommenders so that you can support them as they write this letter. Schools sometimes have their own brag sheets to fill out and send, so check with your guidance office.

Attached in the link is a Brag Sheet template if your school does not offer one.

💬 Asking for the Letter of Recommendation

✔️ Checklist for Letters from Counselors

  • Provide your guidance counselor information to help them write your letter.
  • Depending on your school/counselor, there may be a sheet for you to fill out with relevant information. This is often called a RAVE sheet or a BRAG sheet.
  • If you aren’t sure if there is anything to fill out, ask your counselor!
  • When you give your counselor information to help them write your letter, be specific and comprehensive. Include anything you would like them to highlight!
  • Keep in mind, counselors have to write A LOT of letters. Make the information you give them as helpful as it can be!
  • Set up a College Meeting with your guidance counselor, if possible. This is a great way for them to get to know you and your college goals and for you to ask any questions.
  • Identify deadlines and communicate this with your counselor as early on as possible (especially if you are applying ED!).
  • Thank them afterwards!

✔️ Checklist for Letters from Teachers

  • Figure out how many teacher recommendation letters each of your colleges/programs require.
  • Ask your teachers for a letter of recommendation.
  • Ask them with enough time in advance…the earlier the better!
  • It is typical to ask a minimum of two teachers, but this can vary based on college/program requirements.
  • Have back-up teachers in mind in case the teachers you ask are unable to.
  • Keep in mind that teachers are busy and many students are asking for recommendations. Don’t take it personally if they say no!
  • Once you have asked them and they have said yes, invite your teacher to be a recommender on the Common App.
  • Give your teacher any relevant information they may need to help them write your letter.
  • Giving your teachers a copy of your high school resume is a great way to give them info.
  • Identify deadlines and make sure this is communicated with your teachers.
  • Thank them afterwards!

📧 Sample Email Template

If you are at school, you should ask your teacher in person and alone. That way, you can get the most genuine response. If you are not at school, you can send them an email like the following sample.

Remember to provide:

  1. The colleges you are applying to
  2. Your intended major/career goals
  3. Why you're asking them to be your recommender
  4. A mention of the Application portal (and make sure they know they only write one general letter)
  5. Resume/brag sheet (This can include a transcript or your test scores to show your academic side)
  6. Any relevant deadlines

On this document, feel free to create a new page for each email request, personalizing it to each recommender!

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 college this year and I have been asked to provide a letter of recommendation from a teacher. I would greatly appreciate it if you could write this letter for me.

[discuss the teacher's impact on you, insert your intended college major and future aspirations]

I have attached my transcripts and brag sheet. The deadline for my first 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]

💻 In the Context of College Application Portals

🗃️ Assigning Letters of Recommendation on College Applications

Something you may not know is that you can have different recommenders for each college application! You can do this because recommenders write a general letter (not specific to a college). For example, you could use two science teachers' letters of rec for one college, then pick one science teacher and another social studies teacher for MIT.

All your letters of rec will be in your portal (though you can't see the content), and you assign which recommenders you want for each application. This is important not only for the college's recommendations, but also for what program you applied to. Just like how supplement essays help tailor your application to the college, picking the right recommenders follows a similar manner! As most people apply under the same major, they will just ask for one STEM and one humanities/social sciences. (Nevertheless, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to college apps.)

🏡 Waiving FERPA Rights

Always remember to waive your FERPA rights! 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.

For more information on recommendation letters, check out two of Fiveable's blog posts:

Check out these other guides that you might need.