Colleges judge applicants by pouring over a variety of materials, from test scores and grades to personal statements and a list of extracurriculars. One component of the application, however, can seem particularly nebulous and perhaps beyond the control of students: The teacher recommendations.
They are required by many colleges around the country and serve as a way for admissions committees to get an external perspective on their applicants. Nearly every other component of the application is more or less within the direct control of the student: grades can be boosted with extra effort and new study techniques, test scores can be improved with sufficient preparation, and extracurriculars are available to you to make your own. Teacher recommendations, on the other hand, are much more subjective, personal, and they rest in the hands of someone other than yourself. How then, can you ensure that you make the right impression?
1. Choose wisely.
Different colleges have differing policies on the number and type of teacher recommendations you can submit. Never submit more than the allowed number, but try to pick your teacher recommendations strategically. You should always pick teachers that like you and know you well. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean the teachers from classes you got straight A’s in. Having recommendations from subjects you struggled in can show your ability to work through a challenge.
2. Remember your manners.
This is not trivial advice. Simple gestures like saying “please” and “thank you,” indicate a level of politeness and maturity that are bound to make your teacher think more highly of you.
3. Ask early—timing is essential.
Teachers, much like students, are very busy people. Recommendations are best when done well ahead of the deadline. Not only will recommendations be of the highest caliber when you give the teacher sufficient time to write them, but also it is easier on the teachers if you ask them early. Certain high schools might have policies for the dates in which you are allowed to request recommendations, so abide by those if they exist. Either way, however, make sure you are aware of the deadline set forth by the colleges and ask well in advance of those deadlines. Also keep in mind that there are far more students than teachers, and you won’t be the only student asking for a recommendation.
4. Waive the right to see your recommendation.
Most applications have a box to check that gives you the option to waive your right to view your recommendation. While this may seem like a leap of faith to have your recommendation be sent directly from the teacher to the institution, it demonstrates a certain level of trust between you and your teacher, which is a good message to send to perspective colleges. From the admissions committee lens, it eliminates any possibility that you might be in cahoots with your teacher.
5. Help the teachers get to know you before asking for a recommendation.
The truth is that if a teacher doesn’t know you well, he or she simply cannot write a recommendation with the level of enthusiasm, nuance, and familiarity that you need. A generic teacher recommendation might not hurt your application, but it certainly won’t help your chances at getting into an exclusive “top-tier” college.
Throughout sophomore and junior year in high school, try your best to get to know a handful of teachers really well. Go see your teacher in their office to ask questions and express a genuine interest in their subject. Have a memorable (positive) presence in the classroom by being prepared and raising your hand frequently.
While a relationship with your teacher can’t really be forced, making this effort to reach out to teachers can make the difference between a decent recommendation and a glowing one.
Best of luck to you in your college application process!
Michael Rothberg is a Veritas Prep SAT instructor. He began tutoring his freshman year of college and is excited to help students conquer the SAT by unlocking their academic potential. Currently a rising sophomore at Harvard University, he is a Cognitive Neuroscience and Evolutionary Psychology major and Staff Reporter at the Harvard Crimson.