Updated: Oct 27
Between the essays, activity list, transcript, and every other material that colleges ask for, teacher letters of recommendation (also known as LORs) might be the last thing on your mind as you assemble your college applications. That being said, they are still an important part of the holistic admissions review process, and you should take just as much care with them as you would with any other material you submit.
If you’re a hard-working, studious individual with an impressive educational track record, it might feel impossible to narrow down your list of favorite teachers to just a couple of recommenders. As you create your short list and make plans to “pop the question,” consider the following tips to help make your decision.
What to keep in mind when choosing a recommender
Know your requirements
Letter of recommendation requirements can vary widely among colleges, so be sure you are researching and keeping track of how many and what type of letters are required by each school you’re applying to. Most (but not all) selective colleges and universities require 2 teacher letters of recommendation as part of your application.
When selecting recommenders, be mindful of what type of school or program you’re applying to. For example, if you’re applying to a rigorous engineering program, admissions officers will want to hear from your STEM teachers to ensure you have the necessary hard skills.
On the other hand, if you’re applying to a school with a liberal arts focus, admissions officers will expect to see a more balanced approach. My go-to advice for students in this situation is to submit one recommendation from a STEM teacher and one recommendation from a humanities and/or social sciences teacher.
Prioritize recent teachers
High school is a time of growth and change, and your letters of recommendation should reflect this as well. Colleges use letters of recommendation to assess how prepared you are for a college-level classroom environment. For this reason, it’s better to get recommendations from junior or senior-year teachers, since they have worked on you with more advanced material and have a more up-to-date view of you as a person than your freshman English teacher might.
Put your best foot forward
Admissions officers view teacher recommendations as a window into what you’re like in the classroom – so make sure you’re picking teachers who see you on your best classroom behavior! The ideal recommender is one whose class you eagerly participate in, whose office hours you frequently attend, and who has helped you submit assignments you’re proud of.
Recommenders to avoid
Who not to select for your teacher recommendations will depend partly on the program you’re applying to, but a good rule of thumb is to preference recommenders who teach one of the 5 core academic disciplines (humanities, social sciences, math, laboratory sciences, and world languages).
Also, avoid asking teachers who have not known you for very long, such as a teacher from a one-semester class or the teacher whose class you just started a month ago.
Keep in mind that the above factors are suggestions, not hard rules. There are some circumstances where it may be in your best interest to select a teacher who doesn’t meet the requirements I’ve listed here. For instance, if your sophomore-year math teacher is also a long-time family friend who coaches your softball team, they might still be a good candidate.
More information about letters of recommendation
Sometimes, colleges will require additional letters of recommendation beyond just the teacher letters. This may include letters from:
Your high school college/guidance counselor
A friend or family member
A community or religious leader
Check the Common Application profile of each school you’re applying to see if any of these additional requirements apply to you.
When selecting someone to write a non-teacher letter of recommendation for you, you can use some of the same criteria as I mentioned before: select someone who knows you well and can speak to your best qualities. Also, avoid creating too much overlap with your teacher recommendations – ideally, each recommendation will describe a distinct facet of your personality and achievements.
Advanced LOR strategies
It’s not uncommon to struggle with the process of incorporating letters of recommendation into your college applications. You may have questions like - what’s the best way to ask my teacher for a letter? Or how can I ensure that my teacher writes the best letter possible for me?
An experienced college admissions professional can be an invaluable resource as you navigate these unfamiliar waters. Contact Solomon Admissions Consulting to learn how a college application consultant can answer these questions and help you reach your goals.