Get Great College Recommendations from Your Teachers
The Halls of Higher Learning
Applying to Colleges is a Process: Begin Early
Tiger Mom, one of our fellow Hubbers, recently posted the following questions:
How do you ask a teacher for a letter of recommendation? How much weight does this letter of recommendation carry in your college application? Should you waive the right to review it before it's sent?
In my experience, both as a student and a professor, a letter of recommendation can carry a lot of weight. Lots of students apply who have great GPA's and excellent SAT or GRE scores.
So often admission decisions are made based on something else.. most often on faculty recommendations or student essays (which is another topic all together). It is very important that you have two to three good letters of recommendation.
Start the Process as a Sophmore
Asking a teacher to write a letter is not the problem (more on that in a minute). The real issue is, have you built a relationship with a teacher? Was your attendance good? Did you speak up in class? Were your exams and assignments of high quality? Did you visit the faculty in their office just to talk? Does the teacher really know anything about you? Have you been discussing your post-graduation plans with them?
If you can answer yes to most of these questions, then you should ask that teacher/professor for a recommendation. Here is what you should do. Start early in your senior year, maybe even over the summer, gathering all the information and application materials from the schools you hope to attend.
Make sure you ask the teacher for a letter at last three months before the final deadline. Teachers can be exceedingly busy and some of us receive requests to write several letters almost every semester.
Organize, Organize, Organize
Be extremely organized. Fill out all the necessary forms - for each professor you are asking and for each college or university you are applying to. Sign and date all the applications. Make sure you include a stamped addressed envelope if one is required.
Complete a detailed resume on yourself, include all your noteworthy activities, both in and out of school. Volunteer activities, offices you held in student government or "serious" school clubs or organizations, participation in philanthropic organizations, church or school mission trips, political activities - emphasize what you did to be helpful, not who you were supporting - the evaluator might have very different political leanings. Now put all these documents, for each letter to be written to a different college, in a nice clean manila folder.
Talk to the Teacher or Professor
Now go see your teacher/professor during their office hours, making an appointment and showing up on time, is even better (don't approach the teacher during class and don't stop them in the hallway). Sit down, be pleasant, be gracious, and be polite; after all, you are asking for a favor.
Explain that you are applying to colleges and that you hope they will be willing to write you a recommendation letter. Tell them when the deadline is and show them all the information in the folder. Say thank you.
If and when you get accepted into a college or program, tell your teacher or professor about it and say thank you again; thank you in a letter is even better; sending a copy of your thank you letter to their dean or vice president is much better and will be greatly appreciated.
Teachers and professors often need letters and recommendations, too; those sorts of things can mean the difference between a tiny raise and a decent raise. You are asking for help, so be helpful in return.
Always have several teachers or professors in mind that you can ask for a letter, just in case someone says no. Teachers usually say no for one of three reasons: (1) they don't really know you or your work, (2) they don't believe they can write a positive or supportive letter, or (2) they are very busy and you have waited until the last moment and they cannot get it done in time.
When a Professor Says No
If a teacher or professor says no, or is extremely reluctant to say yes, don't push it - just say thank you and walk away. You wouldn't get a good letter from them and a bad or weak letter is worse than no letter at all. It tells the admissions committee two things: the teacher didn't like you or thought you did poor work, and you were not smart enough to know who to ask for a decent recommendation.
Generally, we like writing letters for good students, whom we know well. We want to help you; we want you to do well and get accepted by a good school. But teaching faculty often have many obligations in addition to teaching that you may not be aware of. We serve on multiple committees, task forces, and councils which have meetings all the time.
Often we serve as the chair of, or report writer for, several committees. Some of us are school deans, program coordinators, department chairs, or division directors, etc., and carry a lot of additional duties. Last, but certainly not least, there are professional research and writing projects and papers, which are the pathway to possible promotion for us.
Asking for assistance well in advance of the admission deadlines is crucial and is much more likely to result in a favorable response, and a very good recommendation. Hopefully, if all goes well, more than one institution will accept you and you will have a happy choice to make.
Give Yourself Every Advantage
As a general rule, students who take the SAT, GRE, or LSAT during the summer, rather than during the school semester, do a better job studying and preparing, therefore, earning higher scores. The higher your scores, the broader your choice of colleges and universities.