How to Decide Who to Ask for Letters of Recommendation

Madeleine Karydes
Madeleine Karydes

Madeleine attended UC Berkeley and double-majored in English and Media Studies. She is now an integral part of the Empowerly team.


You should take plenty of time to consider who to ask for letters of recommendation. Testing, transcripts, and even essays, can tell colleges a good deal about how you perform in academic settings and how you define yourself. What they lack, however, is the ability to combine this objectivity and personality testimony. This is where letters of recommendation come in. 


Colleges appreciate these letters, as they demonstrate parts of you that testing cannot. Letters show what a third-party figure thinks about you. For example, the person who writes your letter can attest to your character and work ethic via their observations over time. Do consider your timing and selection carefully.



Before asking for a letter of recommendation, you want to be sure to allow enough time for your reference to complete it. Your reference is writing on your behalf out of generosity, they will have other responsibilities to complete. [Plus, your reference will do a better job when they’re not rushed!]  Usually a month in advance is acceptable, but the earlier the better! Remember that your teachers and counselors have their own work plus other recommendations as well.



Who should you ask? Read each application carefully; often, schools specify who they want the letters to come from, and how many letters are required.

In general, colleges want to know the current version of you. Teachers from your junior year or above, who have known you for awhile, make good references. Also consider: teachers who know you from outside the classroom, like a club moderator, or a teacher who helped direct the play you performed in. Consider adults who know your strengths, and have a good understanding of you as a person. Think of someone who is enthusiastic and who would love to write about you. If you are unsure if they would be willing to write on your behalf, politely ask if he or she will be willing to write a letter of recommendation for you.


Questions You Should Ask Yourself when Deciding Who To Ask for a Letter of Recommendation:

  1. What messages about myself do I believe are sufficiently conveyed elsewhere in an essay? What aspects of my identity do I want my letters of recommendation to reveal?
  2. Would Person X (i.e., potential recommender) testify to my personal character or my academic character? Effectively, in what context does this person know me?
  3. Do I want multiple recommenders who focus on the same side of my character (i.e., really driving home one point) or do I want more diversity in perspective (i.e., making sure two recommenders don’t rehash the same points)?
  4. What specific aspect of my identity do I expect this person can attest to? Is this something I want to be showcased?
  5. Does this person attest to the most temporally relevant aspects of my character (i.e., who I am today)? 

Even if the person knows you really well, you still want to be able to converse with them. If you are asking a counselor to write a letter, make sure you make an appointment. You want to make it easy for them to write a positive and detailed letter for you. Remind them of your accomplishments and challenges you have overcame. Talk about your plans for college and what kind of hobbies you are excited about.


A final note…

You want to waive your right to see the letters. Admissions will trust your references more if they know that you have not seen it. Make sure your references know the application deadline, and do not be afraid to follow up with them periodically to make sure they sent it. Once you have all your deadlines met, send thank you notes to your references. Without their opinions, you would not be able to meet the application requirements.


Learn more about navigating your personal college journey with an introductory conversation with our team!

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