Colleges want to know the real you.
But getting to know you as a person, your personality, what drives you, what moves you, and what you are passionate about, is difficult for colleges. They can’t figure that out from your grades and admission test scores. (As they say, you’re not your grades and test scores.)
So colleges rely on other, more human sources. And one very significant way they gain insight into the real you are through college recommendation letters from your teachers.
In fact, as admission test scores have become less of a factor in deciding who is admitted, teacher recommendations and application essays have become more important.
This means that providing colleges with the best teacher recommendations possible is a great way to increase your chances of getting into college.
Unfortunately, you have limited control over what a teacher says actually says in a recommendation.
You can, however, increase the probability of a good recommendation by asking the right teachers and giving them enough time to write.
Who to Ask for a College Recommendation Letter
I’ll say it straight out. The best teachers to ask for a college recommendation letter are your junior year teachers.
Colleges want recommendation letters from teachers that have worked with you for a while, who really know you, and who have the most recent experience with you. Junior year teachers have worked with you and have observed you for a whole year’s worth of work and in the most academically challenging courses you have taken so far in high school. So they fit the requirements quite nicely.
Your other option is to ask a senior year teacher. Now, there may be situations where you need to do that, but you need to remember that a teacher in your senior year will have only worked with you for a very short time before you need to apply to college. Not an ideal situation if you want to get a recommendation from someone who really knows you. This is especially true if you are applying early action or early decision.
When to Ask for a College Recommendation Letter
After to deciding which junior year teacher to ask, the most important factor to getting the best teacher recommendation letter is asking them at the right time.
And the best time to ask is at the end of your junior year. Preferably about a month or two before the year ends. (The reason for that timing is explained in #4 below.)
Here are five reasons why.
1. So they have enough time to get it done
No teacher wants to do a bad job on a college recommendation letter. However, if you don’t give them enough time to get it done, you are asking for a problem. It’s like trying to write an essay at the last minute because
you forgot the due date.
It is a rare teacher (or anyone for that matter) who can write a good recommendation in a few minutes. To write a good college recommendation a teacher requires time to organize their thoughts and remember all those good things you did in class.
Many teachers write college recommendation letters over the summer. In fact, I know of some junior year teachers who will only write recommendations during the summer. They let their classes know this at the beginning of the year.
2. So your recommendation doesn’t suffer from “recommendation writing burnout”
Teachers who teach mostly junior or honors classes get swamped with requests for college recommendations. I know teachers who have written forty recommendation letters a year for many years.
The earlier you ask, the less likely your teacher is suffering from “recommendation burnout” because they had to write twenty recommendations before yours.
Many teachers write recommendations in the order they were requested. The first recommendation they write will be for the first student who asked them, the second one for the second student, and so on.
Remember these are teachers, they like to reward good behavior.
3. So the teacher says yes to your request
Believe it or not, people do say no to requests for recommendations.
I’ll use myself as an example. I had a student ask me for college recommendation letter which they needed for a deadline the next day. I said no.
Now I’m sure, and I hope, he found another staff member to help him out. But for me, it meant a lot of work to totally rearrange my schedule to get it done. The satisfaction of helping him out was not enough to overcome the pain and stress that would result from having to change my evening all around with short notice.
Did I feel bad? Yes. But I also knew he had been told by numerous staff members and in a written guide we provide to juniors that tells them to ask for a college recommendation letters early enough so that the writer has enough time to get it done. Had he not received that information, I would have gladly moved my evening activities.
I’m sure he was stressed out (although he didn’t look it). But the point here is, by asking for recommendations early enough, that’s a stress that’s completely avoidable. I’m sure he learned a lesson for the future.
4. So the teacher has time to collect good things to say about you (and you have time to provide them)
Another reason teachers like to be asked to write a college recommendation letters early is it gives them time to observe you and gather information they can put in the recommendation. College often ask for specific evidence of things like academic ability, leadership, discipline, etc. Your teacher wants to make sure they describe you to a college in the best way possible so they note things that come up in class that involve your work ethic, academic ability, interactions with others, etc.
By the way, your teachers are looking for the good stuff. Besides your grades, they will also make a mental note of things like the time you helped a struggling classmate or when you came in for extra help determined to get a good grade. These are always good to include in a recommendation because they give the college insight to the real you and ultimately that’s what colleges make decisions on.
In fact, colleges love descriptions of how you acted in specific situations and in classroom events. They are also interested in decisions that you made. All these things give them insight into your judgment, discipline, work ethic, people skills, and analytical skills.
5. So they don’t forget what you did in their class
As time goes by, people forget things. It’s true of everyone.
If you ask a teacher from junior year for a recommendation letter for college in December of your senior year, it’s going to be much more difficult for them to remember everything about you and what you did in class than if you had at the end of your junior year.
For one thing, they are now involved with a whole new set of students. They may not remember those insightful things you did that can add depth to your application. Don’t forget, if you were in a full year course, your teacher is trying to remember things that may have happened a year earlier.
Bottom line, it’s just more difficult to write a quality college recommendation letter when you haven’t seen the student for a while. This is not to say they won’t do a good job, it’s just that you aren’t taking advantage of the time factor to improve your odds.
College recommendation letters are becoming increasingly more important to colleges. To make sure you get the best ones, there are two things you can do. Ask junior year teachers and ask them early, before the end of your junior year.
When it comes to having a teacher write a college recommendation letter, there are no better teachers to ask than your junior year teachers. They’ve had time to get to know you, they know how you perform academically, and their experience with you is recent. All of these are important factors for colleges.
I’ve also listed five reasons why it’s important to ask for college recommendation letters at the end of your junior year.
I encourage you to maximize your chances of getting a good college recommendation letter by using these two strategies.