Asking for a Letter of Recommendation for College: 4 Steps to Success

Nothing helps an application stand out more than a great letter of recommendation for college. Of course, a good GPA and personal essay are important as well. But strong letters of recommendation give colleges insight into the type of person you are, your character, and who you might become at their university.

To receive a great letter, you should ask mentor figures who can attest to your character and achievements, then be sure to give them what they need to provide a stellar recommendation. Here are four steps to asking for a letter of recommendation.

1. Brainstorm Your List (and Narrow It Down)

Start by making a list of the people you might ask for a letter. Common options include:

  • Current or former teachers
  • Guidance counselors
  • Your pastor or youth pastor
  • Sports coaches
  • Current or former employers
  • Internship supervisors
  • Volunteer supervisors

If you’re having a hard time choosing whom to ask, these questions can help:

  • Who can most accurately speak to your abilities?
  • Who can most accurately speak to your character?
  • Who has connections/experience in the field you’re applying to?
  • What do the colleges you’re applying to value most, and who can write a letter that aligns with that?*

*Hint: take a look at the college’s core values and mission statement for ideas.

Joseph Bentz, Ph.D., professor of English at Azusa Pacific University, has written many recommendation letters and advised students in this area as well. He suggests students choose familiarity over prestige when it comes to selecting recommenders.

“Be sure to choose recommenders who know you well and can be specific in the letter,” he said. “Some students try too hard to get letters from people who are prominent but who don’t know them well. A vague letter probably won’t help that much.”

Narrow your list down to two or three people. Having options is important because some colleges require two letters—one for general admission and another specific to that field or major.

“Ask for letters from at least one more person than you actually need,” adds Bentz. “That way if someone fails to meet the deadline, you will still have enough letters.”

2. Ask the Right Way

There are three things to keep in mind when asking for a letter of recommendation for college.

First, it’s never too early to ask! Most students request letters between October and December, right before application deadlines. If you ask in September (or even over the summer), the person will appreciate that you planned ahead, and they’ll also have more time to be thorough when they write your letter.

Second, try to ask for your letter in person whenever possible. Ask clearly and boldly, and don’t be afraid—chances are if you think this person is a good fit, they’ll agree. In the event that you can’t do this in person due to distance, a formal phone call or email can work.

“In your request for a letter, always give the person an easy way out of doing it,” advises Bentz. “You don’t want a reluctant recommender! Tell them that if they are too busy to do it, you will certainly understand.”

And finally, remember that you’re asking this person to do you a big favor. Be sure to express gratitude when you ask, and let them know you’ll provide whatever information they need to make writing the letter as easy as possible for them.

3. Give Them What They Need

Prepare a packet of materials for the people writing your letters. This makes their job easier and gives them the information they need to write something great. Provide them with basic information, such as:

  • Which colleges you’re applying to
  • What you’re majoring in
  • When you need the letter (two weeks or more before the actual deadline)

Also, if the college you’re applying to has a specific recommendation letter format, print that out or email them the information. Some schools may prefer to email the materials directly to the person writing the letter. If this is the case, let the person know ahead of time. Never submit someone’s email until they’ve agreed to it.

Finally, some letter writers might ask for your input as well. So be prepared to share your strengths, specific career goals, or any high school honors or recognitions you’d like them to specifically mention in their recommendation.

“When you ask for a letter, it is helpful to include some information about yourself that the recommender might use in the letter,” said Bentz. “Add that information as a list at the bottom of your email, or if you have a résumé, include that with your request. Even people who know you well may not know dates and specifics of all your activities, jobs, and experience, so they will be much more likely to write a good, specific letter if you help them with those details.”

4. Follow Up

Follow the first three steps, and you should have your letter(s) of recommendation within a month or two. But for various reasons, it might not happen this way, even if you asked early.

If it’s been more than six weeks—or deadline day is approaching—don’t be afraid to send a gentle reminder via email. Simply mention that the deadline is approaching and ask if they need anything else from you to make the process easier.

After the recommender submits the letter, be sure to send them a thank you note. Follow up once you hear back from colleges too. It’s always nice to let people know you’ve been accepted to a college if they’ve played a part in it!

Looking for more information about the college application process? Check out Azusa Pacific University’s admissions requirements.