Q&A: Steps Toward a Strong College Recommendation

By Sami Dugdale

At the beginning of senior year, hundreds of aspiring students begin to take the next step into adulthood by applying for their colleges of choice. While the process has several key factors, one of the most important is a strong teacher recommendation letter.

Now, students have several questions on the process of getting a recommendation letter and I thought, who better to ask then the king of recommendation letters himself, Michael Schille, TOK and English teacher. So I sat down with him and asked the most common questions students have asked about the process:

“What is the best way to go about asking a teacher if they’ll write a recommendation letter for you”?

You must first ask them directly and sincerely. If you ask a teacher in front of the whole class, you’re kind of putting them in an awkward situation. Private meetings are best. Also, set an appointment to meet them before or after school. If a student is worthy of a recommendation letter, the conversation needs to be private and unrushed.

“Around what time of the year should students begin to ask their teachers to write a letter for them?”

You have a huge window. If you wait until the last minute, there’s a strong possibility that the teacher won’t write it for you. Junior year is the best time to let a teacher know that you are interested in having them write a letter for you. Senior year is okay but ask by September or October at the latest.

“Does it matter what year the teacher taught you?”

Your senior teachers should not be included unless you had them the year before. Chances are that the teacher doesn’t know you well enough yet to write a personal recommendation letter. It’s best to ask teachers from your junior year.

“What qualities does a teacher look for when writing a positive recommendation letter?”

Character, effort, and hard work are all very important qualities. The student must be open-minded when it comes to criticism because it leads to humility, which leads to growth. I must be able to see that the student has overcome struggles both in and out of class. Also, evidence of overall mental capability such as creativity, verbal or written expression, and analytical ability.

“What should be included in a letter of recommendation?”

Anecdote evidence is very important because it provides first hand evidence of the way the student interacts with others and pursues their goals. I also try to include at least two positive qualities as well as one negative. The negative, however, usually leads to a positive conclusion about the students’ character. It helps express the idea that nobody is perfect.

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