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Articles / Applying to College / I Can't Find Appropriate Teachers to Write My Recommendation Letters

I Can't Find Appropriate Teachers to Write My Recommendation Letters

Sally Rubenstone
Written by Sally Rubenstone | Sept. 25, 2019
I Can't Find Appropriate Teachers to Write My Recommendation Letters


I feel like I have no options on getting letters of recommendation from teachers. I asked two teachers who I know well and they both said they're full. I have other teachers who know me but they're in subjects that aren't impressive (one is PE, the other is drama — I am trying to get into engineering). What do people do in this situation?

Don't Give up on Teachers Who Said No

You shouldn't lose all hope on the teachers who said "no." Instead, make an appointment to speak with the two teachers who are already "full." Explain your dilemma, and insist that you'll repay the time it takes to write your reference but multiplied by Pi! (The STEM folks should love this.) In other words, if the teacher estimates that he or she will spend an hour on your letter, you will offer 3.14 hours in exchange. You should also suggest what you could do. Are other tasks in order that the teacher needs help performing, or can you help with tutoring? Once the teacher sees that you need a favor but that you're ready to provide a favor in return, you may wrangle that recommendation after all.

Cultivate Relationships With Current Teachers

If the teachers you already asked taught you in past years, you may have to focus on your senior teachers who don't know you well yet. Begin with the academic subject or subjects in which you're doing best so far. Approach the teacher(s) and explain your problem, asking if the teacher might be able to write on your behalf and, if so, how soon that can happen. For example, if your colleges have application deadlines in January or beyond, you have plenty of time for your new teachers to get to know you. But if you're aiming for Early Decision or Rolling Admission schools and want your references sent in October, a 12th-grade teacher may not feel prepared to support you that soon. But it doesn't hurt to find out.

Ask Your Guidance Counselor for Advice

Certainly you aren't the only student in this predicament. When high school teachers put limits on the number of recommendations they write, there are inevitably seniors who get shut out. So perhaps your counselor has thoughts on how to proceed ... or is accustomed to nudging some of the more popular teachers to encourage them to extend their limits.

Remember That Rec Letters May Not Play A Starring Role

You should also read these tips about recommendation letters. Here you'll find additional advice that "The Dean" gave to another student in similar straits. You'll also see that, although the best teacher references may move a borderline applicant into the "In" pile, the majority of recommendation letters are complimentary but generic, and they don't play a starring role in the admissions process.

Written by

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone knows the competitive and often convoluted college admission process inside out: From the first time the topic of college comes up at the dinner table until the last duffel bag is unloaded on a dorm room floor. She is the co-author of Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions; The Transfer Student's Guide to Changing Colleges and The International Student's Guide to Going to College in America. Sally has appeared on NBC's Today program and has been quoted in countless publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Weekend, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, People and Seventeen. Sally has viewed the admissions world from many angles: As a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years, an independent college counselor serving students from a wide range of backgrounds and the author of College Confidential's "Ask the Dean" column. She also taught language arts, social studies, study skills and test preparation in 10 schools, including American international schools in London, Paris, Geneva, Athens and Tel Aviv. As senior advisor to College Confidential since 2002, Sally has helped hundreds of students and parents navigate the college admissions maze. In 2008, she co-founded College Karma, a private college consulting firm, with her College Confidential colleague Dave Berry, and she continues to serve as a College Confidential advisor. Sally and her husband, Chris Petrides, became first-time parents in 1997 at the ripe-old age of 45. So Sally was nearly an official senior citizen when her son Jack began the college selection process, and when she was finally able to practice what she had preached for more than three decades.

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