Who You Should Ask for a Letter of Recommendation: A 5-Step Plan

teacher talking to the class
Kristen Seikaly
Kristen Seikaly

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The letter of recommendation can serve as a powerful asset to the college applicant. A well-written letter of recommendation from the right person may tip the scales in your favor towards admittance, so spend a bit of time considering who will write yours.

Instead of wracking your brain for who will write the best recommendation though, follow this five step plan to find out who you should ask for a letter of recommendation.

Step 1: Read the requirements

Finding out if your application lists any requirements for letters of recommendation is an easy yet important step. Pull out a piece of paper and write down all of the requirements for your letters of recommendation. Keep this paper out, because you’ll use it for the following steps, too.

Step 2: Make a list of people who know you well

Now you’ll create a master list of potential recommenders. Make a list of everyone who knows you well. Don’t be afraid to think beyond teachers, although you should list as many teachers as possible, too. If it seems like you have too many options, that’s a good problem to have! The rest of these steps will help you narrow down this list to find the best people to ask.

Step 3: Crossing off some names

This will ensure you don’t spend time considering anyone that can’t help you. First, cross of the names of any family members or personal friends on your list – they are considered biased recommenders and cannot be used for your applications. Then, cross off the names of anyone else you can’t use based on the requirements you wrote down earlier. For example, some schools may not want supplemental recommendations, which are people you know from outside of school, although many will.

Step 4: Tallying the score

Now, make sure you have enough space left next to the remaining names to add tallies to each one. If you don’t, feel free to rewrite the remaining names on a new piece of paper. Once you’ve done so, add a tally or a check mark next to each name that agrees with the following statements:

  • I have known this person for more than a year.
  • I have taken a class or worked with this person within the past year.
  • This person is a teacher or advisor for a subject I excel in.
  • This person is a teacher or advisor for a subject I want to study in college.
  • I feel comfortable asking this person for help.
  • I feel comfortable taking time out of my day to talk to this person about my college application.
  • My family and friends think this person would write a good recommendation for me.
  • I feel comfortable allowing this person to write a letter of recommendation without reading it personally.

Once you’ve tallied up the names, you’ll want to ask the people who received the most tallies or checkmarks. Count up how many recommendations you’ll need and are allowed to submit for your applications. Then, if you have more or less than you need, adjust accordingly.

Step 5: Asking your potential recommenders

Writing a letter of recommendation for someone, especially a good one, takes time and consideration. Therefore, ask your potential recommenders respectfully, while also making it clear why you are asking them in particular. Also, make sure you ask them at least a month before the letters are due, and offer to meet with them to give them details on your strengths and your goals for college.  

If they accept, give them a stamped and addressed envelope for each letter they’ll be writing to facilitate the process as much as possible for them. Give them a list of due dates as well, and check in with them a week before the due date. If anyone should decline to write you a letter, don’t fret too much about it; they may feel unequipped to write you the best letter possible, and ultimately are doing you a service by declining. You can simply move on to someone else on your list.

 After your recommendation letters are sent in, be sure to write thank you notes to your recommenders for the service they have done for you. You can also rest easy knowing you’ve received the best recommendation letters possible by going through this five step plan. This will free up your mental energy to focus on the aspects of your application you can control, and leave the recommendations to the recommenders.

Questions? Let us know!