The Big Ask

Most college-bound seniors need to rely on one or two teachers to write their recommendation letters, so it’s essential that students know how the process works.

Abby Pingpank, News Editor

The last thing seniors want to do this college application season — other than miss their deadlines, of course — is to irritate the very teachers who they hope will write their recommendation letters.  The trouble is, however, it’s not all that hard to do.

The teacher recommendation letter is one of the few areas on a college application where a student’s personality can shine through.  And with over ten million high school seniors applying to college each year (and the number is growing), it’s especially important that applicants carefully manage the way the choose and select their recommenders.

While the letter itself is the responsibility of the teacher, it is critically important that you know when and how to ask a teacher. Trust me when I say it will make the experience more enjoyable, and less stressful, for both of you. 

When asking a teacher to write your rec letter, you want a teacher who knows you well. If you select a teacher in whose class you got an A, consider that that teacher may not know you well. All they can probably say is that you are a good student with good grades, which is already apparent to the admissions officer from reading your transcript. Instead, pick a teacher who can write about your personality, your extracurricular activities, or anything else beyond your grade in the class. 

Perhaps you bonded with a particular teacher who can say a lot about you.  They can speak to your stellar work ethic or how you were always in a positive frame of mind or even how you overcame a particular challenge. A teacher who knows you well is going to make you stand out. They have the ability to change the admission officer’s view of you from an everyday good student to one who is distinctive.

James Nondorf, Vice-President of Enrollment and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at the University of Chicago, offers this sage advice: “A quality recommendation letter will speak volumes more than several vague ones ever could.”

Now that you have figured out who to ask, let’s talk about how to ask. First and certainly foremost, do not send a teacher a request through your Naviance account before asking them either in person or via email. The surprise appearance of your request in a teacher’s Naviance account will come off as lazy, sneaky, or clueless. Teachers want to hear from you, and they will view it as a sign of politeness when you ask before sending the Naviance request.. Keep in mind that they will likely want to know why you chose them to help you get into college.

Also, and not to heighten your stress, it’s worth remembering that teachers aren’t required to agree to write your letter.  Though it’s unlikely, they may deny your request, which should to emphasize the main theme of this article: plan carefully before proceeding.

If and when you ask a teacher to write a letter for you, do not ask them less than two weeks before your applications are due.”

When asking, the best option is to have a conversation in person with the teacher. It will convey maturity and confidence, and it shows that you care enough about them to make time to talk to them. However, many teachers like to get their recommendation letters done over the summer, and sometimes NASH seniors wish to get a letter from a NAI teacher. If either is the case, then your only option may be email. But emailing over the summer may work fine. Just make sure to offer a good explanation as to why you are asking that particular teacher. 

But there’s no true substitute for an authentic in-person ask.  I made this mistake with one of my letters and emailed my teacher when I simply could have asked them. I will say it is much more rewarding to ask a teacher in person. It makes them feel like you are interested in them and their class. 

Another key point concerns timing.  If and when you ask a teacher to write a letter for you, do not ask them less than two weeks before your applications are due. Think about how stressed you may be about your own deadlines. You do not want to put that stress on your teacher. Chances are, you are not the only student asking that teacher for a letter, so it is best to request as soon as you can. If you wait until the week of your deadline, they may be backed up or busy.  It’s therefore best to allow at least two weeks for the turnaround of a letter from a teacher. I can tell you they will appreciate it, and they will have more time to really think about what to write. 

Teachers understand that you are stressed about college, and I’m sure that they want the very best for you. They will do whatever they can to help you get into college, so don’t inconvenience them. Give yourself enough time, act maturely throughout the application process, and good luck with the whole ordeal.