June 3, 2018
Yep, it's a smart idea to request recommendations even if you don't think you'll need them because it's too early to tell what your final college list will look like, and you may end up adding a school or two right before the deadlines next year. You don't want to end up chasing your chemistry teacher down the hall just before finals next January when he's already agreed to write letters for 47 of your classmates and will cringe at the thought of tackling yet another.
However, you don't have to rush to ask for references now if you don't feel ready to do so. Sure, for many students it's wise to get the references ticked off of the to-do list before September, when life can get especially hectic. But if you don't have a teacher (or teachers) in mind who are suited to the task, then waiting until your senior year is underway is a reasonable alternate plan. Colleges usually prefer references from teachers who taught you in eleventh or twelfth grade. And, of course, you want to pick a recommender who respects you and your work and who can articulate this well in writing. So perhaps there's a teacher who fits the bill who taught you in ninth or tenth grade and who will teach you again as a senior. In this case, holding off until the fall would be wiser than hustling to get a recommendation this week.
But regardless of when you make the request, here is a list of DO's and DON'T's as you proceed:
DO ask a teacher for a reference in person, not via email or phone, unless you're so terribly shy that you practically faint at the thought of a face-to-face request.
DO give the teacher an “out" — a reason to say no without awkwardness if he or she is too busy, doesn't know you well enough to write on your behalf or perhaps believes that it might be a stretch to support your candidacy at all! “The Dean" suggests that you approach your teacher by saying something like this:
“Ms. Johnson, I would like to ask you to write a college recommendation for me. But before you commit, I will email you some information about me, and then you can review it and then let me know your decision."
Then, if this teacher doesn't immediately dredge up a dozen excuses (or make choking noises ;-)), follow up this conversation with an email cover note. In this note, you should thank your teacher for considering your request and also include a brief list of “memory-joggers." What were the highlights of your experience with this teacher? Did she copy your research paper and distribute it to the entire class? Did she urge you to publish your short story in the school literary magazine? Did you get the highest grade on the final exam? These may be magic moments that you'll cherish for the rest of your life, but — believe me — even the most doting teachers could have forgotten already.
Similarly, what were your general strengths in this class? Did you participate actively in discussions? Did you stay late for extra help until you finally grasped a tough concept? Did you go from a 79 in your first marking period to a 95 in your last? Did you volunteer to tutor another student who was struggling? What else might that teacher recall about you? (“Remember how we used to argue about the Yankees?"). Academic memory-joggers should be at the top the list, but it's fine to mention one or two others as well. Trust me, although you may be a tad uncomfortable putting your successes down on paper, your teachers will be grateful to you for refreshing their flagging memories and for enabling them to write recommendations with minimal hassle.
DO follow your high school's protocol for enlisting your recommenders. For instance, if your high school uses Naviance to track your college process, you will probably be expected to send your teachers an official reference “invitation" through that system. However, a Naviance request should not replace an in-person one. Teachers should be alerted that the Naviance invitation is coming. If you snoozed through the college meeting when all of this was explained, ask the guidance office for a quick tutorial (and bringing thank-you brownies would be a nice touch!)
DON'T give your recommenders a resume unless you're asked for one. The memory-joggers are more important. Teachers too often default to a resume when they can't think of much specific to say. But the college admission folks don't need to hear from your teachers that you're captain of the swim team or treasurer of the Key Club. They'll find that information elsewhere on your application. They want your teachers to tell them what you're like as a student in their classes.
DON'T choose recommenders who only know you from extracurriculars. It's great if your junior English teacher is also your debate advisor or tennis coach and has seen you from different angles. But it's important to select recommenders who have taught you a major academic subject. If you feel that none of your teachers can paint a clear picture of you the way that a club advisor or coach might, then you can ask for an extra reference from the latter but it shouldn't replace one from an actual classroom teacher.
DON'T worry if you're not sure yet where you're applying. Recommendations are rarely tailored to a specific college. This may happen occasionally ... especially when the teacher feels that a student is a perfect fit for a particular school and/or has a personal connection there as an alum or parent. But more commonly, your recommendations will be generic so you can ask for them before you know exactly where you're aiming. However, teachers do like to know where their students are heading and often find it helpful when at least a couple target colleges are named in the cover note.
With the school year winding down, it's fine for you to take a little time to think about who your strongest recommenders might be. But although you may be convinced today that you won't need any recommendations at all, this could change in the months ahead as your college list evolves. Also, keep in mind that teacher references might be necessary if you apply for scholarships, internships or summer jobs.
Finally, a year or so from now when you've made your post-graduation plans, be sure to thank your recommenders once again and tell them where you'll be landing. Here are some past suggestions from College Confidential members on different ways to say “thanks" when the time comes.
If you'd like to submit a question to College Confidential, please send it along here.
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