Recommendation letters are an essential requirement for many college, grad school, scholarship, or internship applications. However, for some students, they may be overwhelming. After all, who do you ask for a recommendation letter? What does it need to include? How long will it take?
I’ve been requesting and receiving recommendation letters every year since my junior year of high school. After lots of trial, error, and hearing teacher’s preferences for getting recommendation letter requests, I’ve perfected the method of how to request and receive the best recommendation letter possible.
Thankfully, it’s not too complex. These are the 5 steps you need to follow when requesting and receiving a recommendation letter:
1. Decide Who to Ask
While many students think that the only thing that matters is the content of the letter (and believe me, that is a HUGE factor), it’s just as important to take into account who you should ask for the recommendation; believe it or not, you shouldn’t always ask your favorite teacher or supervisor.
For school, take into consideration which classes and teachers have challenged you. These teachers are more likely to notice the effort you put forth in their class, which gives them something extra to write about in a letter of recommendation. This is especially true if you’ve stayed for extra help, asked plenty of questions in class, and did the extra credit.
It’s also important consider what the recommendation letter is for. Is it for a Biology scholarship? Have a science teacher write the recommendation letter. Is it for an internship? Have a former employer that you interned with (or, if you haven’t interned before, a teacher who’s class content aligns with the internship) write the letter. Utilizing a relevant reference will help your recommendation letter stand out much more to those reading it.
Step Two: Write a Letter Requesting the Recommendation Letter
It doesn’t matter how long you’ve known the teacher you’re requesting a recommendation letter from, the first step is always to write a formal letter or email (about 2-3 paragraphs long) to request a letter of recommendation.
Although it may seem a little awkward at first, it’s worse to ask the teacher in-person for a recommendation letter. Not only does it look unprofessional, but they’re still going to need information like who/what it’s for and when they need it done by.
By writing them a letter, you’re giving your teacher something material to look at and reference while writing their recommendation.
Step Three: Introduce Yourself and Request the Letter of Recommendation
When requesting a letter of recommendation, many students forget that their teachers often have hundreds (if not thousands) of students, with many of them often requesting a letter of recommendation from the same teacher, too. So even though you may have spoken with them on several occasions, they may not remember everything about you, your goals, and your accomplishments.
That’s why it’s important to start off your request with a brief introduction of yourself to give them a quick refresher, so they know exactly who you are. Then tell them what you need a letter of recommendation for (college, scholarship, etc.) and ask if they would be willing to take the time out of their busy schedules to write you one.
If the college/scholarship/job requires that the letter be submitted electronically or by mail directly from the teacher, make sure to give them the link/address and the deadline so that there’s no last-minute confusion.
If you need a paper copy, request that it is in a sealed envelope the teacher’s signature across the seal; doing this ensures the college/organization that you are submitting the letter to that you have not read the letter, which many of them prefer.
Remember, ALWAYS request the letter at least two weeks before the deadline, but the earlier the better. After all, teachers get so many requests for recommendation letters that it’s easy for them to get behind and then rush through writing them, so ask early to make sure you get the best letter possible.
Step Three: Specify How Long It Needs To Be
When requesting a letter of recommendation, the first question many teachers ask me is, “How long does it need to be?”
Some organizations may specify a preference, but in most cases it’s up to you and the teacher. It needs to be long enough to where the organization can get a good understanding as to why you’re the best candidate, but it also needs to be short enough to where it’s not overdone. It’s all about finding that happy medium.
You may ask why this step is even necessary. After all, wouldn’t a teacher write enough recommendation letters to know how long they need to be?
Well, yes and no.
The length of the recommendation letter can vary from student-to-student, what the recommendation is needed for, and whether the requesting organization has guidelines for the letter. But even without this, you need to request at least a certain amount in order to make sure that you have a good-quality letter to submit.
For example, I once received a recommendation letter that was only 2 or 3 sentences long, not because I didn’t submit a portfolio for the teacher to reference to or that wasn’t excelling in the class, but because I didn’t specify how long it needed to be. I have no doubt that this had a negative impact on me for the scholarship I was applying to receive.
So do yourself a favor and throw in a minimal word count, page count, or something that will ensure that you will receive a good-quality recommendation letter.
Step Four: Attach Your Portfolio and Resume
Your portfolio is an essential when applying to colleges and scholarships. In fact, I’ve talked before about how to create the perfect portfolio, but essentially it should consist of a list of your student activities, awards/honors, community service, work history, etc.
Additionally, write a small description by each of what you did, your responsibilities, and why it was important.
If you are applying for an art scholarship or to an art program, be sure to print off good quality pictures of your artwork to attach to the letter.
By including a portfolio and a resume, you are giving the teacher a variety of different things that he/she can talk about in the letter, which strengthens its quality.
Step 5: Request Additional Copies of the Recommendation Letter
My final tip is to always request additional extra copies of the recommendation letter, just in case you ever need a recommendation letter last minute. I cannot tell you how many times having extra copies of the recommendation letters helped both me and my teachers (especially since I was constantly apply to scholarships) so that I wasn’t coming to them every single time I needed a recommendation letter; just make sure that the teacher addresses it “To whom this may concern”, rather than a specific college or organization.
For example, last year I was applying to a scholarship and although I had read the requirements several times, I didn’t see that it needed 2 recommendation letters until the day I was going to send it, which was the absolute LAST day to have it postmarked by. Luckily, I didn’t need to freak out because I had extra copies of recommendation letters on hand in my scholarship binder. All I had to do was grab a couple of them and I was good to go!
And you know what? I ended up receiving that scholarship, which was worth FIVE THOUSAND DOLLARS!!! Imagine if I hadn’t had those extra recommendation letters on hand!
By following these tips, I have received so many incredible recommendation letters, which have gotten me accepted into summer programs, colleges, given me scholarships, and so much more. Many of the incredible opportunities I have been given are because of these recommendation letters, so they’re not something to just skip over or not invest your time in.
Do you have any tips or tricks that you use when requesting letters of recommendation? Let me know down below!