Letters of Recommendation (LoR) can provide context to your work and help your application come to life, so it’s important to select the best teachers for the job. Ask teachers who have instructed you in an academic class in high school (no middle school, extracurricular activity, or sport). Ideally, ask teachers who know you personally and not just as a student who performs well on tests. Good recommendations come from teachers who can write a holistic letter on your behalf.
Your best bet is to ask a teacher who had you in a core academic class in your junior year. Sophomore year is too far back and senior year is too new, in most cases. Core academic courses are English, history, math, foreign language, science, and computer science. Elective courses like drama, art, or journalism are not given as much value and should be avoided for this purpose, although you can always have a teacher write you an additional letter if you so desire. Remember that the best letters of recommendation do not necessarily come from teachers in whose class you earned an A+, though good grades do help. What you hope to get is a well-written letter that includes some specific examples of your achievements, contributions, and abilities.
When considering which teachers to ask, first consider these questions:
- Who was able to see you as an active participant in class on a regular basis?
- Who has seen you at your best?
- Where did you stand out?
- What contributions did you make to the class?
- Did you write a great paper or create a great project?
- Did you do any independent research?
Ask teachers who know the above things about you.
In general, if you are applying to a private college, you will need two letters from your academic teachers and one from your counselor. Some schools like USC and Georgetown require only one letter and the University of California schools, as well as some other public universities, do not require any. Additionally, schools like Davidson and Dartmouth encourage students to submit a peer LoR which should be written by a true peer and not an adult or parent.
Finally, give your teachers plenty of time to write you LoR. Ideally, you should give them at least 4 weeks advance notice, and give them an easy way out if you sense that they are not up for the task due to time constraints or some other reservation. When you ask a teacher, the reaction you hope to see is clearly positive and enthusiastic. If you sense any reservation, then it may be best to find another teacher. In most cases, if the teacher knows you well, she/he will be happy to write your LoR. And, be sure to provide them with all your background information along with some notes about how much you learned in their classes and how it may have impacted your future course of study. Any and all information can be helpful.