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How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation While Everyone is in Quarantine

Oct 8, 2020

Letters of recommendation can be one of the best ways to convey the energy, curiosity and dedication you bring to a classroom to the admissions officers who read your college applications. While your transcript provides numerical insight into your objective performance in classes and your personal statement illustrates your personal growth from your own perspective, the recommendation letter adds a crucial tertiary dimension to your application –  your teachers’ own testimony to your dynamism in the classroom. For this reason, selecting a recommender and carefully composing a recommendation request requires careful attention to detail, and choosing a recommender who can eloquently vouch for your impact in the classroom is more important now than ever. Record deferral levels resulting from COVID-19 have complicated this admissions cycle to an unprecedented extent, so you’ll want to make sure that your recommendation letter request, both the email itself and the compilation of attachments, helps your teacher present you in the best possible light.

The process of asking for a letter of recommendation may feel  intimidating; balancing diplomatic cordiality with confident expression of your achievements inside and outside of the classroom certainly requires discretion. Now that many high schools have transitioned to hybrid or fully remote learning due to COVID-19, you may have to have that conversation through email instead, further complexifying the matter. For some of you, that might be good news, as hitting “send” might feel easier than knocking on your teacher’s door after school. For others, you might feel like you’re missing out on an opportunity to advocate for yourself in person, or worry that your teacher will lose your email in the virtual stack of other emails he or she has to get through each day.

Regardless of how you feel about the change in circumstances, take comfort in knowing that your teachers are expecting requests for letters of recommendation, and keep in mind that your teachers want to help you reach your collegiate goals! Nuanced knowledge of your personal challenges and triumphs in the class, coupled with specific articulation of your intentions to explore your academic interests in college should definitely mitigate the stress of asking for a letter. This year, as with any other year, the right teacher will be more than willing to write a letter of recommendation for you. You just need to learn how to ask appropriately, and we’re here to show you how!

1. Choose the Right Recommender

For some schools, you may be able to ask a teacher and another recommender, such as a coach, religious leader, or other mentor to write a letter for you. Such an option can be great for allowing two different aspects of your achievement to shine, such as your tenacity in the physics lab alongside your team-oriented drive on the soccer field. Most commonly, though, you’ll need to ask one or two teachers to write your letter of rec. Since this portion of your college application is the only one that is more or less out of your control, you need to make sure the teacher(s) you choose are ones you trust to advocate for you. Here are a few tips to help you confirm that your instructors will write letters that give your application the boost it needs:

  • When possible, choose teachers who have known you for more than one academic year. Teachers who can speak to your growth as a student as well as your character will help make you a more attractive applicant.
  • Select teachers who instruct you in subjects you excel in and are passionate about. Those teachers can help you to build your “hook” which demonstrates to colleges that you have unique, specific interests and helps give admissions officers a better idea of how you’d fit in academically at that college.
  • Avoid choosing teachers you had freshman year, and try to choose teachers who you still  interact with now.
  • Lastly, you should consider asking a teacher who knows you in a non-academic context (such as if they are also the advisor to your club or have helped you with personal projects outside of school). They can shed a light on how you are both as a student and community member!
  • Given the circumstances, another factor to consider is whether or not this teacher is responsive to emails. If they have a track record of leaving students on read, they might not be the best teacher to ask. You can save this teacher as a back up in the event that your other recommenders fall through.

2. How to ask for a Letter of Recommendation via email

Once you’ve chosen whom you want to ask for a letter of recommendation, you can begin working on the email you’ll send to them. Both content and wording should be artfully considered in this process, as portraying yourself as thoughtful, detail-oriented and driven is key in this step. Don’t let the importance of the task stall your progress on it, however! The word “perfect” here is used very loosely; you should never let perfection morphe into procrastination. Write the best email you can and send it as early as possible! Here’s what a “perfect” email could look like:

letter of recommendation
Your email should be short, sweet, and personal, and contain any relevant information that might help your teacher. Send any supplementary materials you expect your teacher would want to see in that initial email to avoid too much back and forth. Make sure your subject line is clear so that your teacher knows it’s important and responds to the email in a timely manner.

3. Respect Their Time and Yours

Waiting for a response to a request like this one can be anxiety-inducing, and anxiety makes time feel like it’s moving unbearably slowly. With that in mind, you should resist the temptation of following up if your teacher doesn’t reply right away. Respect their time and the fact that they are adjusting to online instruction, receiving other requests for letters of recommendation, and possibly balancing that with taking care of their children during the day. You should respect your own time too; if you’ve been waiting patiently for a few weeks and still haven’t received a reply, email them again to make sure they received your initial email. If they still don’t get back to you, it might be necessary to return to step one and think about other teachers who you could ask for a letter of recommendation.

As with any other component of the college application process, it’s important to begin asking for letters of recommendation early on. Doing so will increase your chances of getting the best recommender and letter possible. It’s important to stay on track, even while everything around you seems to be out of control. So, if you haven’t already, begin asking for letters of recommendation this week so you can be in good shape to submit your college applications!