How to ask for teacher recommendations

If you’re a parent of a high school senior, you may be going insane, and your kids are driving you there, as quickly as they can. They’re not doing this on purpose, however; they’re just going insane themselves in their efforts to apply to college at the same time that they’re trying to maintain their GPA and actually enjoy their fleeting senior year.

While you can’t do much to help them with their homework (you stopped understanding it years ago), you can help guide them through the college application process, and that includes securing teacher recommendations. Sometimes kids can be really dense when it comes to knowing who and how to ask, and they need your wisdom to nail down the types of recommendations that will help solidify their acceptance to the college of their dreams.

Here are 5 tips for getting that one important part of the application right:

  1. Know which teachers are naturally good choices for the task. Good teachers won’t ever let your kid know that he or she is not their favorite, and you wouldn’t want it any other way. And good teachers won’t ever let personal feelings stand in the way of your child’s future. But there is a distinct difference between a sincere, heartfelt letter and one that seems contrived or forced. Someone who truly likes and respects your child is a much wiser choice for  a recommendation than someone who merely taught your child as one of many. Guide your kids towards teachers who have a demonstrated fondness for them or positive impression of them.
  2. Ask teachers who can speak to various aspects of your kid’s strengths. A math teacher might be able to talk about Luke’s affinity for numbers, his ability to problem solve, and his logical mind. So a second letter of recommendation should come from a teacher who might attest to Luke’s creativity, or strengths in working with peers, or leadership. Just as an application should showcase your kid’s well-rounded personality, letters of recommendation should do the same.
  3. Make sure your kids approach teachers via face-to-face contact versus email. Assuming your children are asking teachers at a school they still attend, they should take the time to request recommendations in person, at a time that’s convenient to teachers (not during class changes or as a teacher is rushing to a meeting). They should politely and respectfully make the request and include all necessary information and supplies, such as due dates and stamped, addressed envelopes.
  4. Help your kids construct a resume that highlights their accomplishments. There are thousands of sample resumes and templates online that make it easy to plug in information and print out a clean, nicely formatted final product. I always recommend that parents keep a running log of all their kids’ activities, jobs, awards and honors, sports and extracurricular involvement in high school. This makes it infinitely easier to compile the information into a resume that can then be used for college applications. The bonus is that kids can make their resumes available to teachers to help them write even stronger recommendations.
  5. Make sure your children thank their teachers. Teachers do not get paid for writing recommendations, and done thoughtfully, a recommendation can take a considerable chunk of time. Multiply that by 20 students, and that’s a lot of time teachers are sacrificing to help your kids achieve their dreams. A handwritten thank you note should be a given, and if you’re able, consider a small gift card or baked good to show yours and your kids’ appreciation.

Remember that letters of recommendation can make or break students’ college acceptance, especially when they are applying to “stretch schools,” smaller private colleges, and elite universities. For a student with less than stellar grades or standardized test scores, or one who didn’t do much other than go to school, a good letter of recommendation can shine a light on characteristics that colleges look for, such as cooperativeness, strong work ethic, critical thinking skills, and perseverance in the face of difficulty. Help your kids solicit the right letters from the right teachers, and then show proper appreciation when the college letters of acceptance arrive.

For more tips on high school success, check out my book Teenagers 101.