How To Ask for a College Recommendation Letter

college rec letter

How do you ask for a college recommendation letter? Who should you ask for a recommendation letter?

There is a reason that no one enjoys asking for a written college recommendation letter; often, you’re asking a person whose opinion you care about and who has probably already done you favors before to execute yet another time-consuming favor that feels like it is both difficult and important to your academic trajectory, career, and future.

So how do you ask for a college recommendation letter both respectfully and authentically? It starts with cultivating real relationships with the adults in your life.

Olive Book College Advice Blog

College Recommendation Letter Tips for Sophomores and Freshmen

If you are a sophomore or younger, set a goal to cultivate a relationship with three adults.

Make a list on your phone of adults who have taken an interest in your success. Then you will have a roster when you apply to college. These relationships needn’t be purely self-serving; indeed, they are both more fun to foster, and prove more effective as references, if they are authentic. How do you pick an adult, and once you do, how do you cultivate a working relationship with them? Some examples include:

Exampled of Adults to Ask for Recommendation Letters

Pick your favorite teacher, coach, or school counselor and ask how you can work with them next school year. This can be your go-to approach.

Every six months, make an effort to briefly visit the first client of your lawnmowing business. She was kind and seemed to be on your side. Put a reminder in your calendar.

Have a boss who admired your work habits? Ask her.

You served as a volunteer assistant coach for a youth soccer team from age 11 to 16. Ask the head coach to write it.

Got rear-ended by a car while driving your mom’s friend home from the beach and she seemed impressed with how you handled the police, swapping of insurance information, etc? Put her on the list because she knows you, admired something you did, and has a good story to tell board admissions counselors.

I know some of those are oddly specific, but they should give you an idea of what to look for in your own recent history: it is about being aware of the adult relationships you already have and layering them with some intentionality.

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Are All Recommendations Created Equal?

There is a debate as to whether it is better to ask for a recommendation based on the status achieved by the person who will be writing, or whether it is better to select someone with less status but who knows you better. I suspect it is better to have the second type: someone who knows you well and can speak specifically to you, even if the reference’s resume is thinner. However, you should rarely, if ever, ask for recommendation letters from family members – that’s too close a relationship for most colleges to take the letter seriously.

For a heart-warming story on this subject that will make you smile, go here.

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College Recommendation Letter Tips for Juniors and Seniors

If you are a junior or senior reading this, and have not thought about this topic before, my advice for you is a bit different. You simply don’t have the time to organically cultivate new adult relationships that have not already been established.

For your existing relationships, be sure to give references plenty of time (three weeks minimum) to write something for you. If you do have a new relationship you’d like to use, be up-front and pro-active. For instance, tell your new boss now that you haven’t begun applying to schools yet, but what would he think about serving as a reference when you do? Get him on your side by keeping him abreast of campus visits, the whittling down of your college choices, and your experience applying.

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College Recommendation Letters: Don’t Do This

If you are that high school student who mumbles to adults, fails to make eye contact, and either thinks adults are below you, or you are intimidated by adults, get over it. Recognize that in a few years, you will be an adult yourself, and a peer to these people. Surely you know other high school students who can engage adults effortlessly, so emulate them.

Write us at with your experience selecting adults to write recommendations for you. If we get enough of them, we’ll put up a second blog post with more ideas.

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