College Letter of Recommendation: How to Get a Great Reference

Rec Letter Red Pencil

An exceptional college letter of recommendation can be the deciding factor that gets you into your dream school. While it is not something you write yourself, it is arguably the part of your application that says the most about you. Depending on which schools you’re planning to apply to, it’s probably something you want to put on your college to-do list. Here’s how to get a great reference.

The Importance of the Letter of Recommendation

Letters of recommendation give the college admissions team an idea of the applicant’s unique character and who they are as an individual. It makes the transcript and resume come to life. When members of the college admissions team read a great letter of recommendation, they know the applicant is deserving of high praise and would be a strong addition to the student body.

Asking for a College Letter of Recommendation

Asking someone to write a college letter of recommendation on your behalf is an important part of the college application process. Asking the right person at the right time makes the process less overwhelming.

Who to Ask

Each college or university may have different requirements about how many letters of recommendation you’ll need, and some of the schools to which you apply may not even ask for a college letter of recommendation. Be sure to do your research early so you have plenty of time to ask those who may be most favorable to you in their letter. Often times you cannot read these letters and the writer may submit them directly online to the college. Be thinking about three people to write letters, just in case.  

Consider asking two teachers and a school counselor to write you a college letter of recommendation. Choose teachers from different types of core classes, like one who teaches English and another who teaches math. A counselor can talk about your academic experience as a whole, while your teachers can share their experiences with you in their classes. If they know you well, you can also ask a coach or the leader of a school organization.

Most importantly, ask someone who you believe will write you an outstanding letter of recommendation.

When to Ask

Give the people writing your college letters of recommendation plenty of time. You don’t want them to rush through their letters, and you don’t want them to say no just because they already are writing too many other letters. Ask your references at least one month before the deadline.

How to Ask

Ask your intended reference in person, not through email or on the phone. Keep in mind, they will be taking time to write your reference, so you want to show your appreciation from the start. You can take your teacher or coach aside after class or practice and ask them, and you can schedule a meeting with a counselor.

What to Give Someone Writing Your Letter

Many teachers and counselors will write dozens of letters of recommendation during college application season, so they will appreciate anything you can give them to make writing your letter easier. Give your reference a resume if you have one, especially if your reference is a counselor. You can also write a letter to your reference that includes a personal story about how they helped you grow or what you have learned from them. Many school counselors have a questionnaire or form they give students who ask them for letters of recommendation.

Give your reference all the information they need to write and submit your recommendation according to the application. They may need to follow a template, answer particular questions, or send it a specific way. Make sure your reference has all this information as early as possible. Remember, your teacher may know how you’ve performed academically in their class, but might not know that you work part-time, are a member of a school club, or volunteer in your community. Give them a full picture of who you are so they can write the best letter, nice and early.

Say Thank You

Be sure to show your gratitude for the time your references spend writing your college letters of recommendation. Write two thank you notes for each reference: one when they agree to write the letter, and another after you have been accepted and decide which school to attend.

Make Your Application Stand Out

A stellar college letter of recommendation will help your application shine and stand out from the crowd. You can find more tips and advice about the college application process at

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