Tips for Students: How to Get a Letter of Recommendation from Your Teacher

As juniors and seniors gear up for choosing colleges and scholarships to which they want to apply, they must consider who they should ask for recommendation letters and how to go about doing that. 

To students, this may seem easy, but it it’s not as easy as one would think, as there is an etiquette to follow with these sorts of things. 

Here, I want to provide students with a primer of sorts, or directions and tips for asking your teachers for letters of recommendation. Teachers, you can certainly use this to help encourage your own students to follow these steps. 



Letters of Recommendation, or LOR’s as I refer to them, are highly valuable in an applicant’s file. Since I have been writing them for over 15 years, I’ve picked up on a few things that can help make the process go smoother with more successful outcomes.  When I review this with students, they are often surprised at the details I share.  Here are some of them:

1) Ask early and in person. When you want a recommendation letter, visit a teacher in person, not on the fly during passing periods in the hallway or on your way in or out of the classroom.  If necessary, email to see when you can meet your teacher, but do not request a recommendation over email.  

After you have spoken in-person (before or after school and by appointment is best), it’s fine to communicate digitally about some of the smaller details. Your request should come in the spring for fall applications.  Many teachers limit the number of letters they write and want to stagger their work over the summer. And many get swamped with last-minute requests, so ask early. 

Many, if not all, applications are online now, which when you input your reference's email addresses, the institution or organization will automatically generate an email to them asking them to fill out a form. You will want to ask your teachers beforehand if they would be available to serve as a reference for you. It’s better they hear from you first, before getting that email because it may come off as presumptuous on your part. 

2)  Give the teacher a list of your favorite learning experiences from his or her class. 

When you’re asking a teacher to write a recommendation letter, you will want to give them direction as to what you are applying for and how you fit with that school or scholarship. To help the teacher customize your letter, provide them with an updated resume that lists your accomplishments and experience so they can provide specific details in your letter. 

In addition to your resume, you may want to consider answering some additional questions to help them write the letter. Teachers are expected to provide anecdotes about you in their letters, but seeing as they have probably taught hundreds (and maybe even thousands) of students, they may not remember much. Consider how you would answer these questions: 

  • Which text/unit of instruction did you connect the most with in class?  
  • What activities did you find most beneficial to you personally throughout the course of this year? When you came into my classroom, what were your expectations?  
  • How did you grow over the course of the year? 
  • Why did you take my class (if not a required class)? 

3) Ask your most current teachers.  Your junior or senior English teachers will have more to say about your as a student than, say, your freshman teacher. You are no longer 14 or 15, so you want your letter to reflect your current abilities and potential. Asking a teacher from years ago to write a letter may also send the message that you do not have any current teachers who would be willing to recommend you to their program or scholarship. 

4)  Know before you go.  I have declined students for letters of recommendation, and it is not a comfortable experience for either party involved.  Before asking a teacher for a LOR, reflect on ALL of your experiences with him or her.  I do not enjoy telling a student that his or her poor behavior in my class, frequent absences/tardies, chronic late assignments or incidents of academic dishonesty are reasons for declining him or her, but on principle, I will not accept the task of recommending a candidate if I believe it compromises my professional integrity.  

Consider that a teacher observes students outside of the classroom such as the hallway, the cafeteria, study hall, homeroom, the library or computer lab, and buses.  With all of this in mind, consider all of the experiences you have had with a teacher before you request a recommendation.  Also, remember that an instructor can contact an admissions officer after a recommendation is submitted to rescind it or to raise an objection.  I have done this a few times with students who began to make poor choices in their second semester of senior year.

Getting a Letter of Recommendation from Your Teacher

5) Practice your pitch.  When making your request, avoid statements like, “You’re the only person I know who can do this,” or “My other teachers aren’t as good of a writer as you.” If you can’t think of specific reasons why this is the best teacher to write your letter of reference, then rethink the request.  I might not be the best person to write a letter for a prospective math or science major.  All teachers are writers, not just the teachers of writing, and we take the requests seriously.  In fact, some of us hope you will ask us!

6) Attitude is gratitude.  Once your teacher has written you a letter of recommendation, write him or her a thank you note or an email.  It need not be lengthy, but it is the considerate thing to do.  

Candles, sweets and gift cards are always great, but they are not at all expected.  Don’t feel pressured to get your reference writer a gift.  Just as his or her words will make a difference on your application, your words are all it takes to make a difference to your teacher.  Also, drop a note or an email to your reference when you gain admission to an institution or have been awarded the scholarship.  We like to know, and we will congratulate you!

7) Waive goodbye.  Some instructors will copy you on their letter, and others won’t.  You should waive your right of access to the recommendation regardless, and do not request to see a copy.

I hope you have found this article helpful! I wish you the best of luck as you begin (or continue) your journey after high school! 

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