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  • Writer's pictureDr. Thom

Letters of Recommendation: A Guide to Making your Teacher’s Lives Easier

Photo by Brett Garwood on Unsplash

Everyone has a favorite teacher. Maybe an elementary school teacher who ignited your love of reading. Or a middle school math teacher who was able to explain the material in a remarkably fun way. For me, it was my junior year AP US History teacher, Mr. Boggs.

Mr. Boggs was a lecturer - in the best sense. Everyday, he would cover his humongous white board in key points from the lesson of the day and then, with barely a glance back at the board, tell stories for our hour and a half block class. I was always sad when the class finished. If you remained after class to ask questions, he would often recommend a book to read on the topic of which you asked. Reading the books he suggested developed my love of non-fiction and historical fiction books. He played a key role in my decision to major in history when I went to college.

So when it came to the time for me to ask a teacher for a recommendation my senior year, Mr. Boggs was the obvious choice. He agreed, and wrote me an awesome recommendation, which he gave to me so I could copy it and mail it to the colleges to which I was applying. It was a different time.

Now, teachers (especially those who teach junior level courses) are inundated with requests for letters of recommendations. I’ve heard of teachers who limit the number of recommendations they agree to write, because if they don’t, they will write literally hundreds of recommendations. Additionally, students usually have little idea what their recommendations actually say, because they need to waive their FERPA rights to review those letters.

These factors make students feel like they have little control over their letters of recommendation. I’m here to inform you that you DO have control over your letters of recommendation, but you need to help your teachers in the process.

It’s important to know what you do have control over. The first thing is who you ask to provide a recommendation. Dr. Thom’s prior blog post gives excellent tips on whom to ask. A quick piece of advice - if a teacher declines to write you a recommendation, say thank you and ask someone else. The teacher is actually doing you a favor by declining. They are telling you that they either don’t know you well enough to write a positive one or don’t have much positive to say.

We suggest requesting a recommendation via email. It is important to note that teacher letters of recommendation need to address your course work and classroom contributions in their class. The more specific details and anecdotes the teacher can include, the better. Here again, you have the ability to assert control over your recommendations by giving your teacher material to work with that include specific details or anecdotes from their class in the email you send requesting the letter. I suggest providing your recommender with two or three examples of things you enjoyed from the class - a research paper you enjoyed writing, a group project where you took a leadership role or got to know your classmates better, a time when you helped a classmate solve a problem, a time when you went after class for help and learned something from your teacher. You get the idea. The hope here is that your teacher will take these examples and insert them directly into your recommendation, thus giving specific examples that many recommendations lack.

For students who are rising juniors or younger, give some thought to your academic strengths, courses you typically enjoy, and teachers you have heard good things about from peers. Being able to decide early who you want to write a recommendation for you will allow you to begin cataloging these examples.

Finally, thank your teacher for taking their free time to write you a recommendation. Teachers take enormous amounts of time outside of their other duties to write recommendations and are not compensated for it. They are doing it because they like you! If that’s not a reason to be grateful, I’m not sure what is. A handwritten note expressing thanks and appreciation is appropriate.

Looking back on my recommender, Mr. Boggs, decades removed from the afternoons I spent in his classroom, I’m amazed at the impact he had on my life. He ignited my love for history - something I’m passionate about to this day. I still read authors, like David McCullough, that he suggested I check out, and continue to read historical nonfiction any chance I get. When I look at him through my professional eyes, though, I see a teacher who wrote me an outstanding letter of recommendation, even though he didn’t have the materials to do so. I am lucky he did - but you shouldn’t rely on luck. If you take a few simple steps to make your teacher’s life easier, you will not only gain some control in the process, but most likely come out with better recommendations.

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