Everything You Need to Know About Teacher Recommendation Letters
Courtney Galyen | 2024-03-09 | 0 min read

Everything You Need to Know About Teacher Recommendation Letters 

Teacher recommendation letters provide insight into a student's performance, work ethic, and commitment to learning, helping selection committees identify individuals who are not only academically strong but also possess qualities that make them ideal candidates for enrichment programs and scholarships.

As a former high school teacher and extra-curricular sponsor, I have written more than my fair share of recommendation letters. More often than not, students don’t give much consideration to recommendation letters until they’re asked to get one from a teacher. They are rarely coached on how to approach someone for a recommendation letter nor are they told what to provide or how to ask. I’m here to shed some light on how students should go about getting these letters and how they can do their parts to make sure they get glowing accolades from their teachers. 

Early Considerations in Regards to Recommendation Letters

Rather than seeking recommendation letters as an afterthought, students should view teachers and tutors as mentors throughout their academic journey. Cultivating long-term relationships allows educators to provide more meaningful and accurate recommendations, showcasing a student's growth and development over time. Students and parents should strategically plan courses and extracurricular activities to explore subjects that incite passion and interest where strong mentors and teachers will guide them to success. 

Who to Ask for a Recommendation Letter

An application will clearly show students’ grades and test scores, but good letters of recommendation show less quantifiable aspects of a student like their work ethic or integrity. As such, students should approach teachers who know them well and can attest to their interests and strengths both inside and outside the classroom. Coaches, club sponsors and tutors should be the first ones students ask because those individuals can speak to far more than their academic prowess. 

However, If students need a recommendation letter for a specific type of program or scholarship, they should approach a teacher who has specifically mentored them in that content area. For example, if a student is seeking admission to a prestigious STEM program, they should ask their engineering or science teachers, not their culinary arts teacher. 

Specific programs and scholarships may require that letters be written by certain teachers. As mentioned above, many prestigious summer enrichment programs ask for letters from teachers in specific content areas. Additionally, some may require that the letters be from one of their “core” teachers-math, science, social studies or English. For example, the Common App asks for a “teacher who has taught you an academic subject” which they define as “English, computer science, math, science, social studies, or world language.” As a business teacher I find the classification of my classes as “non-academic” both incorrect and slightly offensive, but I don’t make the rules here. If you have to choose between a set of pre-approved subject teachers, it may also be a good idea to consider which of your those individuals is (or could potentially be) a strong writer. Humanities teachers (social studies and English) tend to be more eloquent writers than scientists and mathematicians. 

What to Prepare & Provide to Your Letter Writer

Teachers have a lot on their plates, but that doesn’t mean they’re not willing to take the extra time and effort needed to write a recommendation letter. Most teachers are actually honored to be asked, but doing so offhandedly in the middle of class time is not a good approach. In order to ensure that the letter is suitably written in a timely fashion, students need to do a few key things:

-Ask for the letter in writing. Usually an email is sufficient. 

-Tell the writer exactly what the recommendation is for so they can tailor the letter to highlight the student’s most relevant qualities. A letter of             recommendation for an engineering camp could look very different from a letter for admission to a leadership summit. 

-Provide a “brag sheet” of accomplishments the teacher may or may not know about. Even a teacher who knows a student well is unlikely to remember everything that they have accomplished over the course of 3 or 4 years. A brag sheet will help the writer to highlight the students key accomplishments as well as their character and personality. 

-Give the writer a firm deadline that is at least a week or two before the application is due. Students will never start a project without knowing the deadline and teachers are no different. Setting a deadline well before the letter is due will give the student time to pivot to plan B if the teacher is unable to complete the letter in time. 

-Remind the teacher of the approaching deadline. It is ultimately the student’s responsibility to ensure the letter is written and handed in and relying on the teacher to remember a single letter among thousands of other responsibilities is a recipe for disaster. A gentle reminder is a sign of diligence and will not be unwelcome. I promise!

Negative Recommendation Letters are Unlikely

Often, letters of recommendation are sent from the teacher directly to the admissions board and students never get to see what was written about them. This tends to strike fear in the hearts of most teenagers, but I can assure you, that fear is unfounded. I have met hundreds of educators in my life and I don’t know a single one who has ever put something negative in a recommendation letter. If a teacher doesn’t have glowing things to say about a student when they ask for a letter, the teacher will likely respond with something along the lines of, “Are you sure you want me to write it?” or “Is there someone else you could ask?” While these aren’t outright refusals, they’re solid signals that the teacher might not have many positive things to say and the student should move on to someone else. 


I personally made it a point to show students my letter before it was sent to its final destination. I wrote meaningful words that painted my students in the best possible light and those letters always made them beam with pride (and sometimes even tears). 

How Do I Get a Letter of Recommendation if I’m Homeschooled?

If homeschool students are working exclusively with their family members, it can be hard to identify sources for recommendation letters since most programs require the letters not be from immediate family. Ensuring students have relationships with quality mentors outside the homeschool classroom is critical but may take some advanced planning. When deciding on activities, focus on those that lend themselves to strong coaching or mentor relationships. Personal tutors, for example, can provide unique insights into a student's learning journey, highlighting strengths, achievements, and areas of growth. It's crucial for homeschooling parents and students to foster strong connections with tutors, coaches or other adult mentors in order to ensure impactful recommendation letters.

In the pursuit of enrichment programs and scholarships, teacher recommendation letters are invaluable assets that can significantly impact the trajectory of a student's academic career. By recognizing the importance of these letters and planning for them during their academic journey, students can unlock doors to exciting opportunities and pave the way for a successful future.