When should you ask for a recommendation letter? Many high schools answer this question for you with an official timeline and procedure for your rec letter requests. In addition to school policy, your teachers might also set rules around how and when to ask for letters of rec.
This guide will go over the most common recommendation letter guidelines, as well as some not so common ones that you hopefully won’t encounter (like a lottery system!). To start, let’s consider which guidelines are set on a school-wide basis and which ones fall into the realm of individual teachers.
What Do Schools Say About Recommendation Letters?
You should receive directions from your school, or more specifically, your guidance or college counseling office, on two main steps:
- When to ask for letters of rec, and
- What information to give your teachers.
Let's first take a look at the three most common guidelines around when to ask for letters.
1. Ask in the Spring of Junior Year
Generally, schools with strong college counseling departments have their students ask for letters in the spring of junior year, usually by April or May. This system tends to be part of the school’s culture, so teachers, mainly 11th grade teachers, expect to get requests then. Asking later is seen as inappropriate and last minute.
2. Ask Within a Month of Your Deadlines
Other schools take a more hands off approach and tell students to ask anytime up to three or four weeks before their deadlines. Larger public schools often use this approach, where students are given more independence and a longer time window in which to make their requests. Some students still may ask in junior year or email their teachers over the summer with a promise to follow up with information in the fall.
3. Submit a List of Names to Your Counselor
A third, less common system used by a few schools involves some chance. Students give three names of teachers to college counselors, who then assign each student two teachers. Usually smaller private schools with a large percentage of college-going graduates use this method to ease the burden on teachers who get the most requests.
Schools with this system are a bit more strict, while, as you read above, others put the responsibility largely in the hands of students. Most schools, however, have similar guidelines about what information to give to your recommenders. This information typically goes into a "brag sheet."
Prepare a Brag Sheet
In addition to setting rules for when you ask, your counseling department should give you a packet to fill out to help your recommenders. This packet should include space for you to write your college list and deadlines, as well as a form commonly referred to as a "brag sheet." Here you'll describe yourself and your goals. There may be space for your parents to contribute their ideas, too.
Whatever systems your school uses, there are two best practices to go by when planning your recommendations: ask early, and give your recommenders a detailed resume and brag sheet. Just how early you ask may depend on your school’s policy, as just described, but it may also be influenced by the teachers you plan to ask. Let’s take a look at what teachers control in this process.
Some teachers limit the number of rec letters they'll write, so you have to ask them early!
What Do Teachers Say About Recommendation Letters?
While your school tells you when and how to ask, your teacher decides how many recommendation letters they’ll write for students. Some don’t set a limit at all, while others set a cap at around fifteen to twenty letters.
It may be disappointing to learn that your teachers limit their letters, but on the bright side it suggests that they put time and thought into each letter they produce. In a few, unfortunate cases, teachers set a very strict limit and don’t seem too eager to write recommendations.
One student on College Confidential talked about how his teacher collected everyone’s requests and drew only six “winners” out of a hat. Luckily, it’s not common for teachers to set a cap this low or to select students arbitrarily. If you have a good relationship with the teacher and make your request early enough, then she should agree to provide you with a letter of rec.
At this point, you may be wondering what your school and teachers have to say about recommendation letter guidelines. If you don’t know already, how can you find out?
If you don't know your school's rec letter policy, how can you search for clues?
How Can You Learn About Recommendation Letter Guidelines?
It’s never too early to find out this information, as you want to get your requests in early and devote a good amount of time to preparing your packet. Ideally, your counselors give you this information during college planning presentations. If not, you can absolutely set up an appointment to meet with your counselor.
Prepare a list of questions, like when and how you should ask, and go into the meeting prepared so you find out everything you need to know. Your counselors should also have some advice on which teachers have a reputation for writing strong letters, and which ones get flooded with requests.
If your counselor hasn’t already given you the details on your teachers, you can speak to older students, as well as your teachers themselves to find out when’s an ideal time to ask. Even if it’s only halfway through the year, you could tell your 11th grade teacher that you’re curious about recommendation letters and wonder if she has any special deadline for accepting requests. Even if you’re not ready to ask yet, you can plan when to do so.
Some of these concerns are obvious requirements, while some are not so immediately apparent. Why’s it important to make sure you know about all recommendation letter guidelines from all involved parties?
Guidelines help make sure your recommendation letters get into the system by your application deadlines.
Why Do You Need to Know About Recommendation Letter Guidelines?
These guidelines influence when you ask, who you ask, and what information you prepare. By figuring this all out early, you can spend a few weeks deciding who to ask and producing your materials.
It’s especially important to put time and thought into your resume and brag sheet, as your recommenders will rely on these documents to write their letters. Not only should your recommenders already have a positive impression of you from class, but giving them thorough materials will also impress them and show them how seriously you’re taking the college application process.
As discussed above, some schools require students to ask in junior year while others take a more hands-off approach. Even if your school doesn’t give you a specific deadline, you might consider asking at the end of 11th grade. That way you’re fresh in your teachers’ minds, plus you can ensure that you won’t lose a spot to other students who were ahead of the game.
If you’re unclear about the answers to any of these questions around recommendation letters, you should definitely speak with your counselor and teachers. Make sure you have the information you need to feel empowered through the process of applying to college.
Speaking of the steps you need to apply to college, check out this full guide on how to apply to college. It goes over everything you need to know, from choosing the right classes to taking standardized tests to filling out your application forms.
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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.