The Lure of the Letter of Recommendation – 8 Tips for Getting a Great Return

Many students don’t have a clue when it comes to asking for a letter of recommendation.  With college applications going out now, it’s a great time to help students learn the etiquette for obtaining a letter of recommendation (which can certainly make your life easier!)  Here is a guest post by Oona Abrams, a Secondary Solutions writer, on getting a great Letter of Recommendation.


Letters of Recommendation, or LOR’s as I refer to them, are highly valuable in an applicant’s file.  Since I have been writing them for over 15 years, there are some universal truths I have gleaned from the entire process of being a teacher reference.  When I review much of this with students, they are often surprised at the details I share.  Here are some of them:

1) Ask early, personally and specifically.  When you want a recommendation letter, visit a teacher in person, not on the fly during passing periods in the hallway or on your way in or out of the classroom.  If necessary, e-mail to see when you can meet your teacher, but do not request a recommendation over e-mail.  After you have spoken live (before or after school and by appointment is best), it’s fine to communicate digitally about some of the minutiae.  Your request should come in the spring for fall applications.  Many teachers limit the number of letters they write and want to stagger their work over the summer. So ask early, and make sure to be specific about why this particular teacher is the ideal person to write your letter.  Never leave paperwork in a teacher’s mailbox or on his or her desk in lieu of making the request.  And while this might sound funny, it has happened more times than I can count: ASK.  Students have come in to see me in the past (or swung past my desk as class begins or closes) and said something like, “Just to give you the heads-up, you’ll be getting an e-mail from so-and-so about my application.”  I have treated these as teachable moments in which I usually ask the student to reflect and rewind.  I have even said, “That was not a request.” Then we have a do-over, or I ask the student to come and see me at a better time when we can speak.

2) Give the teacher a list of your favorite learning experiences from his or her class. This can be done via e-mail after the teacher has accepted your request.  Colleges want specifics from your instructor, and this list will help prompt his or her memory.  With over 100 students each year, many teachers might need this specific data.  Consider how you would answer these questions if you were asked them by your teacher:  Which text/unit of instruction did you connect the most with in class?  What activities did you find most beneficial to you personally throughout the course of this year? When you came into my classroom, what were your expectations?  How did you grow over the course of the year? Why did you take my class (if not a required class)? In the past, many students have given me a list of their activities and awards, which is not of use to me as an instructor who is asked to share academic anecdotes. Colleges want specifics about the classroom, so help your teacher help you.

3) Minimize the clerical work as much as possible.  This means that if you are applying to ten schools, it is likely best to fill out as much information as you have access to complete on the reference forms.  This includes but is not limited to: Your teacher’s name, the school address, your teacher’s e-mail address, the name of the course you took, etc.  Anything that you could look up and fill in should be done. It also helps to e-mail your teacher this completed form as a PDF.  Envelopes should be stamped, addressed, return addressed, and so on.  It sounds picky, but in many cases, it makes a difference, impresses the person who is writing the letter and expedites the process.  So splurge on the self-adhesive mailing envelopes — I appreciate not having to lick ten of the cheaper ones.

4) Avoid asking a teacher who has not had you in class recently.  Writing a letter of reference for someone I had as a freshman or a sophomore is not really fair to the candidate if it can be helped.  The best letters I have written have been for students I had for more than one year and in more than one class, since I can attest to growth over time and a variety of different class experiences.  And, of course, those students who have been editors on publications I have advised or officers in classes I advised are much more likely to get a lengthier recommendation from me.  Colleges appreciate those letters and send plaudits to teachers who take the time to write them.  Dartmouth University and The University of Delaware are two specific schools that come to mind whose admissions officers send those.

5)  Know before you go.  I have declined students for letters of recommendation, and it is not a comfortable experience for either party involved.  Before asking a teacher for a LOR, reflect on ALL of your experiences with him or her.  I do not enjoy telling a student that his or her poor behavior in my class, frequent absences/tardies, chronic late assignments or incidents of academic dishonesty are reasons for declining him or her, but on principle I will not accept the task of recommending a candidate if I believe it compromises my professional integrity.  Students are sometimes shocked and hurt when I tell them my reasons for not being able to write a reference for them.   Most of my reasons to decline a student are not about academics. Poor choices made at athletic and co-curricular events or crass behavior in non-classroom environments often determines my decision to decline a candidate for a LOR.  Some concrete examples include: violating school dress code, leading peers in a tasteless chant at a pep rally, using foul language in the hallways or cafeteria, making derisive comments about teachers or administrators, and regularly littering in common areas. Consider that a teacher observes students outside of directly instructive environments such as the hallway, the cafeteria, study hall, homeroom, the library or computer lab, and buses.  With all of this in mind, consider all of the experiences you have had with a teacher before you request a recommendation.  Also remember that an instructor can contact an admissions officer after a recommendation is submitted to rescind it or to raise an objection.  I have done this a few times with students who began to make poor choices in their second semester of senior year.

6) Practice your pitch.  When making your request, avoid statements like, “You’re the only person I know who can do this,” or “My other teachers aren’t as good of a writer as you.” If you can’t think of specific reasons why this is the best teacher to write your letter of reference, then rethink the request.  I might not be the best person to write a letter for a prospective math or science major.  All teachers are writers, not just the teachers of writing, and we take the requests seriously.  In fact, some of us hope you will ask us!

7) Attitude is gratitude.  Follow up with your teacher reference after application crunch time is past.  Write him or her a thank you note or an e-mail.  It need not be lengthy, but it is the considerate thing to do.  One guidance counselor I know keeps a stash of blank thank you notes in her desk, and before she and a student mail out final applications, she makes sure that the student writes one to each teacher if it has not been done already. I have gotten any number of gifts from students for writing LOR’s, and while I am very appreciative (and make sure to practice what I preach by writing a thank-you note for the thank-you gift!), it is the sentiments of the note that I most value.  Candles, sweets and gift cards are always great, but they are not at all expected.  Don’t feel pressured to get your reference writer a gift.  Just as his or her words will make a difference on your application, your words are all it takes to make a difference to your teacher.  Also, drop a note or an e-mail to your reference when you gain admission to an institution and/or have made your final choice.  We like to know, and we will congratulate you!

8) Waive goodbye.  Some instructors will copy you on their letter, and others won’t.  You should waive your right of access to the recommendation regardless, and do not request to see a copy.

PS:  While this advice is intended for those seeking college admission, the directives can also be applied to students who are applying to summer programs, specialized academic programs and the like.

Oona Abrams is an English teacher with over fifteen years of public education experience in New Jersey, North Carolina and New York. She is an experienced teacher of resource, collaborative, college preparation, honors, AP and IB students.  Her work has been published by Barron’s Educational Series, Educational Viewpoints and English Leadership Quarterly.

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