Securing the required teacher recommendation letters is a vital but often overlooked part of the university application process. Perhaps because students get so caught up in the torrent of essays, tests, and forms, it’s easy for them to spare barely a thought for their recommendations, gratefully delegating this task to their teachers a week or two before the deadline via little more than a perfunctory email. Of course, this approach overlooks the critical role that these letters play in a successful application.
Why Recommendation Letters are Important
Admissions officers at competitive universities face a difficult challenge: it’s hard to distinguish between “good” and “bad” applicants because most students are good applicants on paper.
Harvard’s Dean of Admissions points out the school is “faced with more academically qualified applicants than places in the freshman class”. How can the beleaguered admissions officer possibly make decisions?
This is where letters of recommendation come in. Whereas students will inevitably suffer from bias in their self-assessments, presenting a limited and often exaggeratedly positive picture of themselves, teachers can deliver a more comprehensive and objective assessment of a student. As such, a strong reference can easily elevate an application into the accepted pile.
What Makes a Recommendation Letter Great
Once again, I’ll let the admissions offices speak for themselves. As MIT points out in its recommendations to teachers, “Above all else, make sure to go beyond a student’s grades and academic performance. We can get this information from other parts of the application.”
In other words, great teacher recommendation letters are personal.
For a teacher recommendation to stand out, it needs to go beyond the obvious stuff like “This student did great in my class” and “This student aced all the tests”. It should also provide the admissions office with deeper insight into the personality of the student and their role in the school community.
Who to Ask for Your Teacher Recommendations
The next question is: who should I ask for a teacher recommendation?
At first glance, the answer to this question might seem blindingly obvious: your teacher, of course! But in reality, it gets a bit more complicated.
Who NOT to Ask
1) Tutors, Coaches, Bosses, and other Mentors
For purposes of recommendation writing, a teacher means someone who guided your learning in a classroom setting and evaluated you over the period of at least one semester.
By this definition, someone who only taught you informally or in a non-academic setting wouldn’t count towards your two teacher recommendations.
However, it is true that often a student’s closest relationships are with their coaches, mentors, and bosses. If that person has never taught you in a classroom or given you a grade, then that person can’t be a TEACHER reference. They can, however, write one of the optional recommendations for you.
2) Family Members
Admissions offices treat these as essentially meaningless, as it should (hopefully) be a foregone conclusion that your grandparents or aunts should have good things to say about you!
3) Famous People Who Don’t Know You
Another mistaken supposition I often encounter is students who assume that if they have a recommendation letter from someone famous or influential, then it will secure them a major advantage in the admissions process. Unfortunately, this only holds true if this famous person knows you well. If not, then the letter still won’t count for much, regardless of who’s name attached to it.
Who to Ask
1) Teachers who are also coaches, mentors, etc.
This is one of the best categories of person to ask for a recommendation, as this teacher will have a much more comprehensive view of you as a person and be able to speak to a much broader range of accomplishments and experiences.
2) Teachers of your best/favourite subject
3) Teachers who have known you a long time
In order to write a suitably helpful recommendation letter, it’s important that the teacher knows you well. This usually can’t be achieved in the space of a few weeks. If you have had any teachers for multiple semesters, or even multiple years, then those teachers will be particularly well positioned to write you good recommendations.
When to Ask for Your Teacher Recommendations
The short answer: early.
Much earlier than you might think, in fact.
The level of familiarity for a strong recommendation doesn’t just happen overnight. Rather, it is built up over time.
Starting in Grade 10 (about two years before applications are due), you should start to think about which subjects you like best and which teachers you best get on with. Moving forward, you should intentionally cultivate those relationships, seeking out classes with those teachers where possible and interacting with them frequently.
Approach your teacher between 1-6 months before the intended application deadline. This timeline should allow them to devote serious thought to your recommendation letter, and perhaps even get it done during school breaks.
It’s a bad idea to ask for a teacher recommendation with less than a month to go before the application is due - this is a recipe for a rushed and ineffective teacher recommendation.
How to Get a Great Teacher Recommendation
Getting a great teacher recommendation doesn’t just come down to who you ask. It also depends on HOW you ask.
1) Get to know your teacher well.
2) Reach out to your teacher to formally ask them to write for you. The best way to do this is face to face. Second best would be a phone call. Email is a last resort.
3) Once they have agreed to write for you, share a copy of your school transcript and resume with them. You want to ensure that the teacher is well informed about all your accomplishments and activities.
At the same time, you should schedule a meeting with your teacher to discuss the following:
- Why you selected the teacher.
- What you are hoping the teacher will be able to highlight about you to the university.
- The list of universities you are applying to, and your rationale for choosing each one.
- What major you are considering and why.
- Your goals for university and beyond university.
Armed with this information, your teacher will be able to help an admissions officer envision your role in the university community.
4) Proceed to formally nominate your teacher to write your recommendation letter on the relevant platforms.
5) When you are done, send a gracious thank you letter. Make sure to write again when you receive your application results.
So that’s it! We’ve looked at teacher recommendations from every possible angle. If you follow the advice in this guide to a T, then there’s no doubt that you’ll come away with the best possible teacher references, and you will have given yourself that much of a better chance of getting into the university of your dreams.