Applying to College Recommendations

How to Ask for a Recommendation

Written by CB Experts

Asking for a recommendation for a college application isn’t as simple as it seems. It’s really an art that many students are completely clueless about.

Let’s break it down and get clued in about the art of recommendations.

To Start

The first thing you should do is make a list of the teachers/coaches/administrators/mentors/advisers who:

  • Know you well enough to have insight into who you are
  • Can speak to your best qualities and accomplishments
  • Have specific examples of your best work or achievements

Then, consider the best mix of people to recommend you. You will want:

  • Someone to write to your academic strengths
  • Someone to attest to your citizenship
  • Someone to note how well rounded you are because of activities and involvement
  • Someone who can speak to your interests, work ethic, and participation

Sometimes you will have to provide a particular recommendation; for example, some colleges require your senior English teacher to write a recommendation. Don’t forget to have a teacher who teaches in the area you plan to major in, too, so you can prove you have talent in the program you are applying to. This list should be long enough to cover all your bases even if a teacher or two does not have time to write for you.

Finally, you should have your guidance counselor check your list. Your counselor might be able to add a name or two you have not thought to ask. Also your guidance counselor has ears to the wall and may have heard glowing things about you from a teacher you have not considered. When you speak with your counselor, you should also ask about which teachers on your list might give you the best recommendation. Guidance counselors know which teachers write the better, more-detailed recommendations, and it’s good to be pointed in those directions.


Before you ask anyone to write a recommendation for you, you should prepare a short bio or resume (one page) that provides specifics about you. Even the teachers closest to you may have trouble remembering specifics about you in a sea of students over months and months. Help the teacher out and don’t be afraid to push the recommender in the directions you want them to go.

  • At the top you should indicate the colleges you are applying to and the programs you are interested in. Then your recommender can better discern what the admissions people are looking for and tailor what they write.
  • Quickly list your best grades or projects. If you wrote an exceptional essay, list it by title. If you did a superb lab report, list it by number. If you presented a fantastic report, name it.
  • You should also cover any awards and recognitions you have earned. Your science teacher might not know you received the Language Department’s medal and might exalt you for being a renaissance person!
  • List out-of-school activities to show the teacher who knows you produce excellent work in her/his class that you can manage your time well and balance other interests with your studies.
  • Let the recommender know what school sports and activities you are involved in or if you mentor other students.

You’re letting your recommender see all your sides, well, at least the good ones. You’re providing DETAILS, the things that power a good recommendation.

Face-to-Face Contact

Now you’re ready to approach the person you want to recommend you. It’s not a hit and run. So many students throw a recommendation form at the teacher, babble the question, and run off. No, no!

It’s better to pick a time when the teacher isn’t rushing off to another class or trying to deal with five or six students after class. During a study hall, a planning period, or after school, a teacher might have more time to face you. That gives you the opportunity to ask for a recommendation politely, filling the teacher in on what your plans are and answering any questions the teacher might have. It also allows enough time for the teacher to say, “I’m not sure I have enough experience with you to write a good recommendation.” or “I might not be able to share enough about your writing, as I have not required a lot of writing this semester.” or “I will have to include the time you failed to present your speech.” You may think, why do I want to give a teacher time to say bad things? Well, now’s the time to find out, not after you have received a rejection from your first choice college. All teachers have your interest at heart, and if they feel they can’t write good things, they will let you know so you can find someone else to write for you who will be more positive or have more to say. And, give yourself enough time to listen to those clues. If a teacher or coach or whoever hesitates or says something similar to the above, simply say…”Thanks for letting me know that. Maybe I’ll ask Mr. X.”

It is also important not to throw that form in your recommender’s face. Make sure you show the form to your recommender and that s/he understands it. Also be sure to fill out your information on the form. This advisor may not know your home address!

And, please, provide your recommender a stamped and addressed envelope to send in the recommendation. It’s the least you can do. It’s also not good to give a teacher only a couple of days to write your recommendation. Not only is this expecting a lot, it is not good for you because it will mean a rush job and maybe a less than stellar recommendation because of time limits. All of this is simple consideration. If you want your recommendation writer to consider you in a good light, that starts when you consider him/her. You can not imagine how one student who seems to appreciate the effort and time teachers and other school staff put into good recommendations will standout, and you want to standout!

The Aftermath: Don’t Close Any Doors

You can never have too much good will or too many recommendations! Then don’t ask for a good deed and not recognize it. You really do need to write a little note of thanks to your recommender. You could drop it off in his mailbox or leave it on her desk. It doesn’t need to be long; it could be as simple as:

Mrs. Y,

Thanks again so much for taking the time to write a recommendation for me.

My first choice is Harvard, and I’m waiting hear by April 1. I’ll let you know what my plans are.


Student Z

It’s also good to drop in before the end of school or at the end of a May class, and tell your teacher about your acceptances. For no cost, you’ll get a great pay back.

About the author

CB Experts

Content created by retired College Admissions consultants.