Who Should I Ask for a Letter of Recommendation for College?

By: Caroline Koppelman

The Recommendation Letters are a hugely important and often overlooked portion the college application. Your grades and scores don’t tell the whole story. Unlike the essays, recommendation letters give someone else the chance to advocate on your behalf. You have the chance to have a teacher you admire tell a school what makes you stand out from other candidates. Of course, who you ask to write your recommendation is extremely important because it will affect how the admissions committee sees you.

Most schools require two letters from academic teachers. That means teachers in core subjects: science, math, history, English, or a language. Refrain from asking your gym teacher or coach. Since the purpose of this letter is to provide more information about you, you want to ask a teacher who knows you best. If you’ve had a teacher for a few years in an academic subject (a language, for example) who knows you very well, this is probably a good teacher to ask. While it’s important to pick a teacher whose class you’ve done well in, go with personal connection over grades. You want a teacher who can not only talk about your growth, work ethic, and passion but who knows you well and who genuinely likes you. 

There are teachers who might not always agree with you, who might fight with you, but with whom you share a deep mutual respect. There are certain teachers with whom you might share inside jokes or continue to visit after the class is over. You may also have a teacher who approaches you to write the recommendation letter. Some teachers may be very popular with students seeking recommendation letters because they have a reputation for writing glowing letters. We actually recommend staying away from these teachers unless you have a particularly strong relationship. Often times these teachers end up writing so many letters, that each individual recommendation can feel impersonal.

We recommend asking teachers from 11th grade. In 9th and 10th grade you are still coming into yourself and probably don’t know what you want to study in college. Generally speaking your 11th grade teachers can talk about your goals more than your previous teachers.  

If you’re applying to a specific program (ex: engineering) it’s best to have a teacher from a related subject write you a letter. Many programs will require you to submit program-specific or class-specific recommendations to prove that you’re truly interested. Regardless, when you’re applying to a specific program or major, you need to weave a narrative with your experience to show your interest. You can’t simply say, “I want to be an engineer!” because it doesn’t have any grounding. Having your extra curriculars and essays tell a story is a great start, but having a teacher from that field speak to your passion and drive could push you into the “yes” pile. 

There are schools that will allow you to submit recommendation letters from outside sources, too. If you’ve done a lot of volunteer work, started a community service club, spent your summers helping community organizations, and completed an internship at a non-profit, it might be a good idea to have an adult vouch for you. If you formed a unique bond with the head of your internship, a letter from him or her discussing your accomplishments is undoubtedly a plus. 

You don’t want to overburden the admissions office with too many letters. Letters from famous people (i.e. politicians, alumni, and actors) do not necessarily help unless the person has a real relationship with the student. 

Overall, you want to stress quality with you letters of recommendation. Don’t ask a teacher whose class you did well in just because you got an A, and don’t ask someone for a letter because you think they have a tie to the school. The best letters are the most substantive ones that tell the school more about who you are from someone who cares about you and your academic goals. TKG will walk you through your options and discuss with you whether a teacher is a good fit to write a recommendation letter. When it comes time to submit your application having two glowing recs can be the difference between a solid applicant and an outstanding one.