To Whom It May Concern – How to ask for a college recommendation

The college application to-do list for a high school senior can seem daunting. But it doesn’t have to be.

my529, your educational savings plan, has a few ideas to simplify the process of gathering letters of recommendation.

First, decide which teachers, advisors, or coaches can vouch for your academic, athletic, volunteer, or extracurricular experience. Then set up a brief, in-person meeting to ask for a recommendation.

Callie Pfister, an AP Chemistry and AP Biology instructor in Bend, Oregon, requires students to meet with her when they request a letter. “It shows more respect for my time because they made an effort to personally talk to me about [the letter],” said Pfister.

Keep the following in mind:

  1. Scheduling a meeting with your reference gives you an opportunity to provide specifics. Will the letter emphasize scholarship qualifications? Is it for a general recommendation, a specific school, or the Common Application? Discuss your college and career goals, current course schedule, and GPA. Extracurricular activities, volunteer service, or awards may also be relevant. Include all of this information in writing.
  2. Ask for the recommendation several weeks in advance and agree on a deadline. Pfister said that many teachers limit the number of recommendations they will write every year, due to class loads, curricular demands, and time constraints.
  3. Provide necessary details such as names, schools, dates, and addresses. For electronic letter submission, include email addresses, websites, and login/password information. For mail delivery, furnish the correct address and self-addressed, stamped envelopes where appropriate. If you can submit the letter yourself, request the number of copies needed and arrange a pick-up time.

The best recommendations often address a student’s capacity to weather challenges, according to Pfister.

“I’ve written some letters of recommendation for kids who ended up with a B, not an A, but a lot of it was about trajectory and effort,” she said. “Some letters I felt were successful were where I was able to talk about their strength of character because the class wasn’t easy for them, because they took it like adults, and basically, did everything that it took to succeed and were really transparent with me about it.”

After teaching science for 15 years, Pfister has written countless recommendations—and joked that the letters “apparently worked,” since she has students attending Stanford and MIT.

Pfister said she has also had former students contact her for recommendations for college internships. Most teachers keep letters on file electronically, making it easy to modify the original.

Once the letter goes out, make sure your reference knows what their endorsement means to you.

“It’s also a great idea to give teachers a thank you note to express gratitude for the time—often an hour or more—they spent writing the letter. Gifts are nice, too, but [they] don’t have to be extravagant,” Pfister said, suggesting something “simple” like a candy bar or a gift card for coffee.

And it’s a nice touch to tell them how the story ends. Chances are, your reference cares about your future, otherwise they may not have written the letter.

“Teachers love to know what happened with those letters,” Pfister said. “Where did you get accepted, and where are you going?”