Wondering how you can increase your chances of securing great teacher letters of recommendation to go along with your college applications to elite universities? Simply asking your teachers to write letters of recommendation on your behalf is an unlikely strategy to securing powerful letters. You don’t want to leave things to chance because, in our experience, teachers will write generic letters if you don’t give them, well, a little encouragement and targeted guidance. Remember, teachers generally want to help their students but they also often write these letters over the summer months. And they’re not paid to do so. Thus, keeping all of this in mind, we’ve got ten tips to help you secure letters of recommendation that will impress admissions officers at our nation’s highly selective universities.
10 Ways to Get Great Teacher Recommendations
1. Since some colleges have different guidelines, make sure you read the instructions on each application before you choose the people who will write your recommendations.
2. For the majority of colleges, however, restrict your choices to the following junior year courses (English, history, math, science, and foreign language) and then select two teachers who you think know you the best and have a favorable opinion of you.
3. In addition to writing you a letter, the teachers that you select may also have to complete teacher evaluations, so it’s important that you consider those ratings and how you think your teachers will respond. Below is the criteria (from The Common Application) on which your teachers will be rating you:
Compared to other students in his or her class year, how do you rate this student in terms of:
a. Academic achievement
b. Intellectual promise
c. Quality of writing
d. Creative, original thought
e. Productive class discussion
f. Respect accorded by faculty
g. Disciplined work habits
l. Reaction to setbacks
m. Concern for others
o. Initiative, independence
Next to each aforementioned category is a box for the teacher to check. The headings for each column are: No basis, Below average, Average, Good (above average), Very good (well above average), Excellent (top 10%), Outstanding (top 5%), One of the top few I’ve encountered (top 1%).
In addition to the ratings, your teachers are asked the following questions:
a. How long have you known this student and in what context?
b. What are the first words that come to your mind to describe this student?
c. List the courses you have taught this student, noting for each the student’s year in school (10th, 11th, 12th; first-year, sophomore; etc.) and the level of course difficulty (AP, IB, accelerated, honors, elective; 100-level, 200-level, etc.).
d. Please write whatever you think is important about this student, including a description of academic and personal characteristics, as demonstrated in your classroom. We welcome information that will help us to differentiate this student from others.
4. If you’re basically a ‘B’ student, you do not have to choose the teacher of a class in which you earned an ‘A.’ In fact, a letter from a teacher from a class in which you earned a ‘C’ may have more relevance, especially if that teacher writes about how you put forth your very best effort in his or her class.
5. Your school counselor may give you some insight into a particular teacher’s writing style, so discuss with your counselor the teachers who you are planning to ask for these letters. And be sure to appreciate subtle hints!
6. Once you decide which teachers to ask, don’t forget to ask them.
7. September of your senior year is typically a perfect time to ask your teachers for these letters. However, some teachers may want to know this in the spring of your junior year so that they can do this work over the summer months.
8. Set up an appointment when you can meet with your teachers so that you can help them write more effective letters. For this meeting, it’s always a good idea to give them some written responses to anything specific that you hope will be addressed in this letter — including your academic and personal strengths, a memorable experience that you had in the class, something significant that you learned, an outstanding project you worked on, a paper you wrote, a presentation you gave, etc. Your teachers often need to be reminded of your contributions to the class. After all, they have many students!
9. If you choose not to furnish your teachers with specific information, keep in mind that they may very well write generic letters that will not be of any help to you in the highly selective college admissions process.
10. Once your teachers write your letter of recommendation, remember to send them thank you notes, and keep them informed as to admissions decisions. It’s the least you can do!
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