I remember worrying about the perfect time to ask for recommendation letters. Too early, I thought, could seem like over-planning; maybe my teachers would even forget by the time deadlines rolled around! Too late, though, would suggest a lack of preparation or could even offend my recommenders. It seemed like the stars had to align just right.
If you’ve had any of these same concerns, you don’t have to wonder anymore. This guide will discuss the best times to ask for recommendations, plus why it’s important to have good timing in the first place. To start, what should you consider as you figure out when to ask?
What Matters As You Decide When to Ask?
There are a few main factors that influence when you should ask for recommendation letters, each of which I’ll talk about in more detail below. In a nutshell, these factors include the following:
- your college deadlines
- your teachers’ preferences
- your school's policy
- the year in which you had your teachers
Some of these factors are easy to define - like your college deadlines - while others may offer a little more flexibility. Read on to figure out which of these scenarios applies to you, as well as what it means for your rec letter request schedule.
Let’s begin with the general (though not necessarily definitive) golden rule:
Ask At Least a Month Before Your College Deadlines
Unless your school or teachers set other policies, you should ask for recommendation letters about four weeks before your college deadlines. If your deadlines vary, then ask four weeks before your earliest one. What exactly does this look like?
If you’re applying to meet a November 1st early action or early decision deadline, then you should ask your teachers by October 1st. If your deadline’s November 15, then ask by October 15th. You get the idea.
If your deadlines are regular decision, then they might be around January 1st or January 15th. In this situation, you could ask by the time December rolls around. However, consider everything that goes on in December.
December is full of midterms, which means lots of grading for teachers, plus many days off from school. You can also assume that most students have made their rec letter requests earlier in the semester.
For regular decision deadlines, I would suggest asking by mid-November at the latest, to take into account the busy schedule and vacation days in the winter months.
You may be wondering why teachers need a month to write a letter. For one thing, they’re not just writing you a letter - some teachers have dozens of letters to write, and most counselors have hundreds! Besides that, rec letters take time and thought to do well. You don’t want a rushed, subpar letter because you waited too long to ask for it.
While giving your teachers about a month before your deadlines is generally a safe rule, it’s not the end-all, be-all answer. Your teachers and school might tell you to ask even earlier. Let’s consider what policies teachers set, followed by what your school guidance department might tell you to do.
Every teacher might have their own personal preference.
Ask According to Your Recommenders’ Preferences
Teachers are busy. They have to teach several classes a day for hundreds of students, not to mention all the planning and grading that goes on behind the scenes. Plus, despite what we may have believed in elementary school, they don’t live at the school. They have lots going on in their personal lives, too.
My point is that recommendation letters are another task on top of an already packed schedule. Just as you should give your teacher plenty of time to write your letter, your teacher might set certain policies to make the workload more manageable. She might set a rec letter request due date, or set a cap on how many letters she’ll write.
It’s your job to find out what your teachers’ policies are. If you can’t find out from older students or through word of mouth, then you should ask your teacher when she prefers to get requests. Find out if she sets a deadline or limit.
If she sets a cap, try to get a sense of how popular a recommender she is. If you know your English teacher, for instance, gets inundated with requests, get yours in early. Ask her in September or, better yet, in the spring of junior year.
You don’t want to ask a month before your deadlines only to find that your teacher’s too busy or has stopped accepting requests. Generally speaking, your teacher will appreciate that you’re being thoughtful, proactive, and giving her plenty of time.
Along similar lines, your guidance department may give you instructions about when to ask.
Ask According to Your Guidance Department’s Instructions
While individual teachers may set their own policies, your guidance department may also have a blanket rule for all college-bound students. Some schools, for instance, have students ask in the spring of junior year. Others tell students to submit three teacher preferences to their college counselors, who will then assign everyone two (and thereby balance the numbers more evenly).
Other high schools tell students to ask in the fall of senior year, and still others have no particular guidance - they leave it up to each student to figure it out. If you haven’t received directions, visit your school counselor and ask her about the general expectations. They may determine whether you ask in April of 11th grade or September of 12th.
Finally, there’s one more consideration that may alter your request timeline: the grade in which you had your recommenders as teachers.
Don't wait so long that your teacher forgets who you are! Also, just keep swimming.
Ask Your Teachers At the End of their Class or School Year
Remember that classic first day of school assignment, "Write about what you did over the summer"? Well, what if your teacher asked you to write in vivid detail about what you did three summers ago?
Just as you might have trouble remembering the specifics, your recommenders might not be able to produce the clearest memories if they had you in class years before you make your request. While it’s advisable to ask your junior year teachers, some students reach back further and have their freshman or sophomore year teachers recommend them.
If you had a great connection with a 9th or 10th grade teacher and feel they might make a strong recommender, then you should ask them sooner rather than later. Instead of waiting until senior year, you should ask them at the end of the year you had them, ie, at the end of 9th or 10th grade. Similarly, you could ask your junior year teachers at the end of 11th grade, rather than waiting until after summer break.
Even if you don’t ultimately use the letter, you can have it on file just in case. Plus, asking early helps in any of the other scenarios mentioned above: you give your recommenders (more than) a month before your deadlines, you beat the rush of requests, and you get your request in before any of your teachers’ or guidance department’s deadlines. Win-win-win.
If you’ve learned about the rec letter process, then you know more goes into it than simply asking your teacher to write you one. You additionally want to provide a resume and a thoughtful brag sheet. If you’re asking especially early, then you could make the request and follow up later with all this info. You’ll show your recommenders that you’re proactive and goal-oriented; then you can send along your recommendation packet once you’ve prepared it.
Now that you have a sense of when students typically ask for recommendations and why, how can you figure out when exactly YOU should ask?
So When Should You Ask for Your Recommendations?
To determine when you should ask your recommenders for a letter, you need to do your research. Make sure you know all your college deadlines, for starters. Then figure out whether your school has any guidance about when to ask, like in April of 11th grade or September of 12th grade.
Figure out who you're going to ask in junior year, so you can find out if your teachers set any deadlines for or caps on requests. If you're a younger student, you should think about whether any of your teachers would make for strong recommenders. If so, then consider asking them at the end of the school year.
The latest that you should ask for recommendations is October of senior year for early deadlines and November to December of senior year for regular deadlines. To be safe and proactive though, as well as to keep yourself fresh in your teachers' memories, you'd do well to ask in March, April, or May of junior year.
Asking early will not only give your teachers the time they need to write a well-crafted letter, but it will also give you peace of mind. Apart from following up with a reminder and thank you note, your work on recommendation letters will be done! Then it will be up to your recommenders to upload their letters, and you can focus on finishing up the rest of your college application.
As you can tell, a lot of planning and strategy goes into your recommendation letters. Why are rec letters important in your application? What do admissions officers look for when they read them? Find out more about the role of rec letters in admissions decisions in these guides.
There are lots of other steps that go into applying for college, like scheduling your SAT/ACT and writing your personal essay. Check out our complete guide to applying to college, from 9th grade up until senior year.
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Rebecca graduated with her Master's in Adolescent Counseling from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has years of teaching and college counseling experience and is passionate about helping students achieve their goals and improve their well-being. She graduated magna cum laude from Tufts University and scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT.