Asking for an academic recommendation letter can be stressful. You might feel like you don’t have anyone who’d be willing to write you a letter of recommendation for college. What if you ask someone to write one, and they say bad things about you or they refuse?

Getting your recommendations in doesn’t have to be such a worrisome experience. Before you ask for them, complete the rest of your college application. Next, brainstorm who you have known the longest who can also speak to your abilities as a student.

The worst thing you can do is to wait until the last minute. That’s a recipe for rejection. Instead, plan ahead, give your recommenders as much information as possible, be polite and have a contingency plan in case your prospective recommendation writers say no.

Is a Letter of Recommendation for College Important?

Many schools try to see a more complete picture of their applicants' lives than test scores and grades can provide. To create this picture of you, college admissions specialists read your personal essay and your letters of recommendation. Without detailed letters from the people in your life who know you the best, your college application would just be lifeless numbers, and it wouldn’t have a chance to represent the real struggles you have faced to come this far in your academic career.

A letter of recommendation for high school students can communicate a significant amount of information that might not otherwise be available anywhere else in the application. Letters of recommendation can tell the story of hurdles you’ve had to conquer and can explain exceptional circumstances that might have affected your grades, like problems at home or personal illness. Well-written letters also address your academic interests and how you’ve pursued your passions at school and in your community.

Admissions officers look for positive but dynamic letters that give them the idea of how you will fit into the student body of their college. Will you be a leader? Do your values mesh with the school’s values? Candidates who seem like they will make a significant impact, be an engaged student and contribute to the student community are the ones who will stand out.

Who Should Write Your Academic Recommendation Letter?

Whom you should ask for an academic recommendation letter often depends on the requirements of specific applications. Many college applications specify who should write the letters. Most of the time, the instructions indicate that your recommendations should come from teachers or school counselors, but if you have been out of school for a while, a letter of recommendation from a coworker or employer might be OK too.

When you’re brainstorming about who should write your recommendations, ask your friends, family and teachers who you think might be the best options. Teachers whom you talk to regularly who have also known you for a while usually make the best recommenders. Try to match the teachers’ subjects with your desired major as well.

For example, if you want to study environmental science, and you have been active in your high school’s environmental activism club since you were a freshman, this club’s faculty sponsor would be the perfect person to write your letter of recommendation for college. Coaches are a good option for recommendations too, but avoid asking adults with whom you haven’t spoken recently or whom you don’t know personally. The teacher of your current favorite class would make a better recommender than your kindergarten teacher, even if you are still in contact with him.

How to Ask for a Recommendation Letter

The key to asking for letters of recommendation is to understand that good ones take time. If you ask for one at the last minute, you’ll increase the likelihood of your prospective recommender saying no. Respect their time and ask at least one month in advance of your deadline. Some experts even suggest that you should ask as early as the summer before your senior year of high school.

After you have decided on several teachers or other adults who you think might be able to write the best recommendations for you, ask them politely in person if they’d be willing to do you that favor. If they say yes, ask if they have a few minutes to sit down and talk about what you would like them to include. Writing a letter of recommendation for high school students can be difficult, especially if multiple students ask the same teacher.

Make the task easier by giving them some information about yourself. When you meet with them, tell them about your plans for the future, describe what you learned in their classes and how they have impacted your desire to pursue your passion in college. Giving your recommender a copy of your resume will be helpful too.

What to Do When a Recommender Declines

If you ask someone to write you a recommendation for college, but she says no, don’t get mad. Even if you're on good terms with all of your teachers, it's likely that at least one of the people you ask to write you a letter of recommendation will decline. As a student, you should know as well as anyone that teachers' jobs are hectic and time-consuming, and your teacher is probably doing more work than you realize.

When your teacher says that she can’t write a letter of recommendation for you, don’t take it personally. Her decision was based on a number of factors, and it most likely didn’t come down to how much she likes you. Try to see the situation from her perspective. She probably feels just as bad about saying no as you feel about being rejected.

Although it's tempting to not respond, you should say something, especially if you see this person every day. Make sure you remain polite and cordial, thank her for her time anyway and tell her that you understand. You can also ask her if she has any ideas for someone else who would be willing to write your recommendation. She will be more willing to help if you have been polite even after being rejected.

Tips for Getting Great Letters of Recommendation

Writing a letter of recommendation for high school students is not a simple task. You’ve already made it easier by talking to your teacher about what he should include, giving him a copy of your resume and allowing ample time for him to complete it. Now, it’s time to dot your I's and cross your T’s. Don’t forget to:

  • Waive your right to see the recommendation, as is standard.
  • Provide addressed, stamped envelopes if your colleges require recommendation letters to be mailed.
  • Politely follow up with your recommenders a week before their recommendations are due but only if they have not appeared in your online application yet.

After your school has received all of your letters of recommendation, remember to thank the people who took the time to write them. Soon, you’ll know where you’re going to school. Those letters of recommendation helped you get in. Writing each recommender a thank you note that includes the good news will be a warm and welcome gesture.

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About the Author

Rebecca Renner is a teacher and college professor from Florida. She loves teaching about literature, and she writes about books for Book Riot, Real Simple, Electric Literature and more.