Without Annoying Them
by Karen A. Hott, Two Bridges College Consulting
As a former teacher of AP English Language and Composition at a large public high school, I was frequently asked to write college recommendations for students who had taken AP Lang with me as juniors. Students applying to the U.S. military academies had to have a recommendation from their junior-year English teacher, and many of our students wanted to go to the Naval Academy. I wrote so many recommendations that I actually had a file on hand, “So You Want a Recommendation from Ms. Hott.” But before I talk about how to ask for a recommendation, let me entertain you with some things that really happened to me.
How NOT to Ask for a Recommendation
1. A student interrupted a class I was teaching—I was in front of the class presenting a lesson—to ask me for a recommendation. Do not interrupt a teacher’s class!
2. Students have walked into the teacher’s lunch room during our 25-minute lunch to ask for recommendations. My department was full of very professional, very accomplished, very good teachers; however, at lunch time they let loose. We did a lot of laughing and went back to class all prim and proper Do not interrupt the teacher’s lunch!
3. With the advent of email (yes, I remember a time before email), students didn’t have to bother to see me in person; they could just send an email. You can go wrong in numerous ways by starting with email: It could go to the spam folder, it could be ignored (Who’s prettyboy13?), it could make you seem lazy, and if you aren’t careful, it could make you look ignorant. Unless the teacher has left the school, do not make an email your first contact with the teacher.
4. Naviance, Scoir, and similar college planning programs used by schools have enabled students to get even more impersonal. In Naviance, you can designate a teacher to write your recommendation. This triggers an email from Naviance to the teacher that has the effect of saying, “Surprise! Suzy Sunbeam expects you to write her recommendation.” Do not designate a teacher as a recommender in Naviance until he or she has agreed to write your recommendation.
5. Some students wait till the last minute on everything, including getting their college applications done. Don’t rush in and say that you need a recommendation tomorrow! Remember that saying, “Poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.”
How TO Ask for a Recommendation
1. Think carefully about who would write you the best recommendations, and write down the names of three (two are commonly required). The teachers should know you well and in a positive light. Rarely should the teacher be from 10th grade or earlier, unless you have had a continuing relationship with the teacher. For example, if you had Mr. Debreeze for 10th-grade social studies and haven’t talked to him since, he’s not a good choice. But if Mr. Debreeze is your class sponsor and you’ve worked with him on fundraising or school dances since taking his class, he would be fine. Colleges prefer to see recommendations from teachers of core courses—English, science, math, social studies. If you ask your art teacher for a recommendation, there should be a good reason for doing so, such as planning to major in graphic design.
2. Early in the school year, politely ask each teacher, in person and separately, if he or she would be willing to write you a recommendation. Don’t expect the teacher to remember that you asked last year on the last day of school. Select a time that’s convenient for the teacher—not while he’s teaching a class, not at lunch time. That leaves before and after school or during the teacher’s planning period. If the teacher agrees, ask her if she would like anything from you to help her write the recommendation. (I asked for a transcript, a résumé, and a short essay explaining why the student thought I’d write a good recommendation and including an anecdote that showed our interaction.)
3. Congratulations! Your teacher said yes, she’d love to write your recommendation! Now you can send an email. Send the email within a day of securing the agreement. Any time you send an email, make sure that the tone is appropriately respectful, that it has all the relevant information, and that you have proofread for sentence structure, spelling, capitalization, and punctuation. The email should include a respectful form of address (Dear Mr. Debreeze), a reminder of your in-person request (I stopped by your classroom on Monday, and you kindly agreed to write my recommendation), a thank-you for agreeing to write the recommendation, and an idea of when the recommendation needs to be submitted (I’m applying Early Decision to Super U and the deadline is November 1).
4. Give the teacher at least two weeks to write the recommendation. Back in the day, we had to print the document on letterhead, sign it, seal it in a stamped envelope provided by the student with address on the front, sign across the sealed flap, and walk it down to the guidance counselor to include in the packets being sent to colleges. If your school still does it that way, make sure you provide the stamped, addressed envelopes for each school; however, today, it’s much simpler. Teachers can simply upload their recommendations through Naviance or another portal, but they’ll still need time to get it done.
5. You don’t get to see what the teacher has written, but if you selected wisely, you can assume it will focus on the positives. Once you see that the letter has been uploaded, at the very least, write an email (following the suggestions in #3) thanking him or her for the recommendation. Later, write formal thank-you notes on notecards and, if you can afford it, you can give gifts (not candy; teachers get too much candy!), but gifts aren’t necessary. Most teachers just want to know you appreciated the time and care they put into your recommendation.
6. Tell your recommenders which schools accepted you and, when you’ve decided, which school you will attend in the fall. They cared enough to write the letter for you; they probably care about where you will be once you’ve left the nest of high school.
Good luck. Keep in mind that YOU are asking THE TEACHER for a favor, and act accordingly—with respect and gratitude.