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How to Pick Which Teachers to Ask for Letters of Recommendation

Most colleges you apply to will ask you to submit 2-3 letters of recommendation with your application. These are letters from your teachers, mentors, and guidance counselors that boast of accomplishments and character, and advocate for your college readiness. As a student, you usually don’t get to see these letters before they’re sent to colleges, but it’s your job to build relationships with your teachers and ask them to write a strong letter for you.



Remember, teachers don’t get paid to write recommendation letters for their students, so you’re asking a huge favor of every teacher who writes you a letter. Which teachers should you trust to take time out of their lives and write you a stellar letter, one that you may never get to see? Read on to find out.


How To Pick Which Teachers To Ask For Letters of Recommendation


When you’re deciding about which teachers to ask for a rec letter, think back to all of the teachers you’ve had throughout high school. Consider these questions:


  • Which ones did you know well? Which ones knew you the best?
  • Were there a few teachers whose classes you really excelled in?
  • On the flip side, was there a class that you struggled in but took the initiative to seek help from the teacher and improve your performance?


Any teachers that you think of when asking yourself these questions are potential candidates for your letters of recommendation.


As a general rule, you want to pick a teacher who knows you not only as a stellar student, but on a personal level as well. Pick a teacher with whom you’ve communicated a lot, shared a bit about yourself with, and overall can speak to who you are as a person. Ideally, this teacher will know you not just in a classroom context but also in an extracurricular one. For example, a speech teacher AND debate coach, history teacher AND Model UN advisor, or other teachers who played more than one role in your high school career probably know you best and would write a good letter.


Ideally, you want to ask a teacher who had you as a student recently, within the last year or two if possible. These teachers are likely to remember you the most. However, if you really want to ask a teacher that you had freshman year, you absolutely can do that. You just need to be sure to go and meet with that teacher periodically to get reacquainted before you ask for a rec letter.


In fact, it’s a good practice to meet with all the teachers you wish to write your recommendation letters; it helps you get reacquainted and discuss your interests, goals, and background. This way, you and your teacher can be on the same page about the kind of student you are and how you want to present yourself to colleges. Some teachers ask students to prepare a “brag sheet,” or basically a casual resume, so that they have a better idea of your overall profile.


If you can, also try to diversify the types of teachers you ask to write your letters of recommendation. In other words, try to have teachers from all different subject areas write your rec letters. For example, you could have one STEM teacher rec along with a humanities teacher rec. This will show colleges that you can excel in many different subject areas.


If you can’t do that, the next best thing is to make sure that you get recommendation letters from teachers in your subjects of interest. For example, if you’re applying to a college as an Economics major, try to get an Economics, Math, or even a Government teacher to write your rec letter, as they know how well you do in subject material related to your future major.


How Many Teachers Should You Ask To Write You Letters of Recommendation?


Colleges rarely ask you to submit more than two teacher rec letters. However, you as an applicant may feel like you should ask more than two teachers and try to submit extra letters of recommendation. Is that the smart choice?


Generally, we at CollegeVine say that it is not. Remember, admissions committees are people too, and they have to sift through thousands of applications each year. If they have to read through three letters of recommendation instead of two for your application, and the third doesn’t add a different dimension to your application, you might leave a sour taste in their mouth. They may think that you’re trying too hard or are trying to cover up other weaknesses in your application with extra recommendation letters. It’s best to avoid these potential assumptions by sticking to the required number of recommendations.


That said, if you feel that an extra letter from a non-academic mentor, such as a coach or club advisor, would reveal valuable information that your teacher recs can’t, you may consider seeking an extra letter. Just do so judiciously, and be sure that the extra rec will reveal another layer of who you are.


Some students may also want an extra teacher to write them a rec letter in case one of them falls through. Again, we at CollegeVine feel that this is risky. As we’ve mentioned, teachers don’t get paid to write you a letter of recommendation. They are doing it out of kindness. They’ll likely not take it well if you didn’t even end up using the recommendation letter they took time out of their busy schedules to write.


Instead, try asking two teachers to write you recommendation letters months in advance to give your teachers adequate time to plan and write your recommendation letter. You can check in every month or every few weeks or so to remind them about the letter, but you shouldn’t bug them any more than that. By giving your teachers more time to write the letter, you are better ensuring that you will get not only the right number of letters, but also well-thought-out letters that stand out to colleges. If you really want to be safe, you can even set the “deadline” a month before the actual application deadline, so that you have some leeway if a teacher needs more time.


How Important Are Teacher Letters of Recommendation?


Admissions committees typically use letters of recommendation to get a more personal take on who you are as a student. After all, your letter grades, GPA, and other stats show how well you perform, but they don’t give an accurate picture of what kind of learner you are, how you work in a classroom setting, what your interests are, etc. Only a teacher who knows you well and can speak to these things can do that.


So, your letters of recommendation should not just speak to your accomplishments, but speak to the kind of person you are in an academic and extracurricular setting. Are you the type of person who speaks up and asks questions, or are you the silent genius in the back who gets straight A’s but never raises his hand? Think about how you want to come across as a student to colleges, and perhaps you’ll get a better idea of which teachers would be best to write your letters of recommendation.


Now, it’s important to note that not all colleges will weigh your rec letters equally. Smaller, private colleges or colleges with a holistic review process will likely pay more attention to your recs than larger, public colleges who get thousands of applicants every cycle. This is simply because the larger colleges don’t have as much time to give your letters of recommendation more than a cursory glance as they have thousands of other applications to review. In general, however, rec letters are given about 10-15% weight of out the 100% of your entire application. In comparison, academics are about 30% of the picture, and extracurriculars 25%.


Want a more detailed answer to how important teacher letters of recommendation are? Check out our blog post: How Important Are Letters of Recommendation?


For More Information


Want to know more about rec letters and how you should go about procuring them? These blog posts should help:


A Step-By-Step-Guide To Your Recommendation Letters

What Makes A Good Recommendation Letter?

10 Tips For Talking To Your High School Teachers

9 Rules For Requesting Letters of Recommendation From Teachers


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Sadhvi Mathur
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Sadhvi is a recent graduate from the University of California, Berkeley, where she double majored in Economics and Media Studies. Having applied to over 8 universities, each with different application platforms and requirements, she is eager to share her knowledge now that her application process is over. Other than writing, Sadhvi's interests include dancing, playing the piano, and trying not to burn her apartment down when she cooks!