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Updated September 18, 2022

Letters of recommendation from teachers are an important component of the admissions process at many colleges, particularly the highly competitive ones. Yet many students – and parents – give them no thought until the fall of senior year. What can you do throughout high school to help your son position himself to get great recommendations?

Look at the Recommendation Form

If you learned that a big promotion at work depended on your supervisor’s evaluation, the first thing you’d ask is how your performance would be measured. In a similar vein, students can look to see how they’ll be assessed by their teachers by reviewing the Teacher Recommendation form from the Common Application web site. I strongly recommend that you engage in this exercise this with your teen; I suspect you'll both be surprised by what's on it.

Click here to see the form. You'll note that it has two components. The first page is pretty much what you'd expect; a space for the teacher to answer how long she's known the student, the subject and grade level of the class she taught him,  "the first words that come to mind to describe this student," and an invitation to provide further narrative comments.

Page two is the unexpected part. It contains a grid that asks the teacher to assign a rating to the applicant (ranging from Below Average to One of the top few encountered in my career) on a number of dimensions. This means that even if your son’s teacher generously refrains from voluntarily snitching that he routinely forgets to turn in assignments, she’ll be forced to compare his “disciplined habits” and "maturity" to those of his peers.  In other words, it’s important for students to see how they're going to be assessed so they can shape their behavior accordingly!

Grade Level Advice to Get Great Recommendations

9th and 10th graders:  Your 9th grader probably thinks it’s way too early to think about teacher recommendations for college. That’s true, but entry to many competitive high school and summer programs, as well as to advanced courses, depends upon recommendations from 9th and 10th grades. So it’s never too early to start making friends on the faculty.

11th Graders:  Junior year is the time for students to build strong relationships with a few teachers by resolving to make a positive impact in the classroom. In general, colleges prefer recommendations from an applicant’s eleventh grade teachers, so encourage your daughter to make an extra effort to contribute to class discussions and participate enthusiastically in classroom activities this year. If you’ve ever stood at the front of a classroom full of apathetic teenagers, you know that the ones who smile, raise their hand, and act interested win your undying gratitude. In short, students who respect and help their teachers are likely to find the favor returned.

12th Graders:  Come senior year, it’s time for your daughter to choose two or three teachers to ask for recommendations. Advise her to do so in a timely and thoughtful fashion. Approach them at least three weeks before the letter is due. Colleges that use the Common Application ask applicants to provide the teacher's e-mail address and then send him/her a link to an online form. Colleges that use their own application have different methods for soliciting the teacher recommendation. Your teen should determine how the form for each college needs to be completed so he can provide that information to his recommendors.

For their own benefit, students should also give a teacher the opportunity to gracefully decline if for any reason he feels he can’t write a good recommendation. A good way to do this is for your daughter to ask her teacher if he feels he could write a strong letter of recommendation for her. Any hemming or hawing should serve as her cue to ask someone else.

Should a Student Provide the Teacher With a Resume?

There are different schools of thought about this. Some people feel it will help refresh the teacher’s memory about the student’s accomplishments. While there is certainly some merit to this thinking, the downside is that the teacher may write a letter of recommendation that is little more than a recap of the resume. This makes for a dull letter, adds nothing to the application, and omits the information that the college is really seeking from teachers, which is what a student is like in the classroom. Consequently, I don’t recommend that students routinely provide teachers with a resume. However, if a student would like for a teacher to talk about something in particular, like a project that won first prize at a regional science fair, I think it’s a good idea to say something along the lines of, “Mr. Cardozo, one of the reasons I asked you to write me a letter is that I was really proud of the science fair project I did in your class.”

Be Grateful

The best teachers get asked to write a lot of recommendation letters, for which they receive no extra reimbursement. Remind your son to thank his teachers for their efforts – and to share the good news with them when he’s accepted to college.

Next article:  Extracurricular Activities


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