Don't just apply to college… Position yourself.

Teachers’ Recommendations: Mentorship 101

“Mentoring is a brain to pick, an ear to listen, and a push in the right direction.” –  John Crosby.


It is spring of your high school student’s junior year. He or she is busy preparing for standardized tests and trying to maximize cumulative GPA, while participating in varsity sports or the spring musical. Should your son or daughter also be asking teachers for recommendations for the college application process? Whom, exactly, should your student ask? And… how to go about it?

Elderly the man it is keen by reading of the book on a dark background

When? I advise families to begin this process in the spring of junior year. Your high school guidance counselor may or may not be officially asking students to do that yet. But put yourself in the position of a teacher, who will be deluged with requests next fall. Especially great teachers that everybody wants to ask. That teacher will be stressed, writing about each student fast and furiously, perhaps sacrificing quality. But what if that instructor were able to write your son or daughter’s recommendation over the summer? The teacher will be appreciative of the extra time; he or she may be also able to reflect more thoughtfully on how to write about your teen’s attributes.

Whom? Conventional wisdom says two 11th Grade teachers of “solids” (math, science, English, history or language). A teacher who has known the student very recently can offer more valuable commentary than a teacher from a few years ago. Adolescents change quickly, and admissions people want to see the most recent snapshot possible.

Portrait of young intelligent womanDoes one teacher have to be math or science, and one have to be English or humanities?  In my view, it is more crucial that the teacher know the student well, be a persuasive writer, and that the recommendation leaps off the page. Generally an English teacher is going to be a better writer than a mathematics instructor. Many students are stronger on one side of the verbal/math ledger than the other. Why force a lackluster math recommendation when a history teacher could make the applicant shine? Test scores and grades are a more accurate measure of a student’s abilities in quantitative courses.

tutorwithboyShould your student only ask teachers of courses where he or she has earned A’s? Not necessarily. The goal of recommendations is to offer insights into the applicant’s classroom involvement, curiosity, creativity, work ethic, and perseverance, beyond mere grades, which are clear from the transcript. If your teenager struggled in a subject, but faithfully approached the teacher for extra help, and redoubled efforts resulting in an improvement over the course of the marking periods, that teacher will likely have some powerful commentary about the student’s character.

violinteacherWhat about adults who know your son or daughter well in a context outside the classroom, such as a musical director, athletics coach, art teacher, club advisor, employer, scoutmaster, or youth group leader? The Common Application allows for these non-academic adult supervisors, instructors, and mentors to offer their insights, if the individual college permits it on its Common App supplement. I encourage families to add at least one adult beyond the required academic teachers, because these individuals are particularly well positioned to comment on your student’s artistic or athletic talents, leadership abilities, teamwork effectiveness, goal orientation, and maturity.

tutorhairwithstudentHow? Throughout junior year, the student should be considering whom to ask, and conducting oneself in a way that would impress a potential recommender (e.g., performing well, participating in class, volunteering for projects, genuinely seeking help for a difficult section of the course). Once identified, the student (not the parent) should approach the teacher in person to request a recommendation. The student should elicit an honest response by asking, “I would be honored if you would write a recommendation for my college application. Do you feel positively enough about me to write a positive recommendation?” If the teacher hesitates, and does not appear comfortable saying yes, that is not a good sign. A halfhearted recommendation will not serve the applicant well. If the vibes are not enthusiastic, the student should bow out gracefully (e.g., “If you don’t feel you know me well enough, that’s okay, I have some other teachers I was thinking of asking”). The student should then seek a different recommender who hopefully will be more willing.

asianpencillaptopConversely, if the student has truly been an asset in a teacher’s classroom, the teacher will be enthusiastic about supporting that student’s college application process. If the teacher agrees wholeheartedly, the student should follow up the verbal request with written material (email is fine). I am a believer in giving recommenders all the ammunition they need. The teacher’s main role is to describe direct experience with the student, but a resume or activity list offer a “big picture” perspective of what the student is all about, both in and outside of the classroom. Through these written materials, the student can “own the narrative,” offering a unique positioning with enriching examples. Some high schools require the students to fill out forms to help “jog the teacher’s memory.” If your student’s school has such a form, it should be attached to the request as well.

africanamericancomputerHopefully, the teacher will remember specific classroom interactions to make the applicant “come alive” in the recommendation, but teachers don’t have perfect memories. A cover letter can offer reminders, upon which your recommender can expand, such as: “Your class helped me learn how to organize a research paper. My paper on The Roaring Twenties helped me use primary sources and analyze societal trends.” The student could attach a copy of the paper, scanned with  grade and comments. “Your course made politics come alive for me. In-class debates helped me realize that I have a gift for public speaking. As a result, I  joined forensics and mock trial clubs. I plan to do Model Congress and major in Political Science in college.”

A word of caution. Your student is not telling the teacher what to write. It is not appropriate to try to put words in a recommender’s mouth. It is desirable, however, to give the teacher information that can help him or her to write a powerful recommendation with persuasive examples.

Young Cheerful Indian Mathematics Teacher in a Classroom interacting with the classFinally, the Common Application has a signature statement by which the student can decide to waive the right to see his or her recommendations (FERPA). Most guidance counselors advise college applicants to waive the right. The reason is that college admissions officers prefer knowing for sure that the high school teacher actually had the freedom to write whatever professional judgment genuinely dictated, without any pressure from the student or parents.

thankyoucardEncourage your teenager to send a thank you note next year after it’s all over (to both teacher and guidance counselor recommenders). Beyond good manners and common sense, this is an important lifelong habit your son or daughter will need to practice when gaining recommendations for graduate school or throughout one’s profession. The teacher will appreciate being kept in the loop about where your student ends up going to college, especially because they often do not hear about the fruits of their labors. Keeping in touch is always a good thing.

As with most tasks required by the college process, there is a “hidden curriculum” from which the student can learn invaluable life skills. Young people will always need recommenders and, more broadly, mentors. The teachers’ recommendation exercise gives young people practice in learning how to stand out in a classroom or organization to impress potential mentors; identifying and approaching a mentor for advice, direction and eventual recommendations; becoming a valued protégé for whom that mentor finds opportunities; and staying in touch long after changing contexts. The teacher recommender is perhaps your son or daughter’s first of many mentors.