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Five Facts About Recommendations for College

Like everything else about college admission, obtaining teacher recommendation should follow a strategic plan. Also like every other aspect of college admission, the difference between good and great can be the difference between rejection and acceptance. If you think of it, there is really no such thing as a bad recommendation. Teachers do not generally trash students to colleges. Typically, recommendations are in the lukewarm to warm range. They might cite the fact that a student always got his work done on time or that he was a pleasure to have in class. Rarely will teachers indicate that a student was a distraction in class or that most of his papers were sloppy or ill-conceived.

As a result, colleges are desensitized to good recommendations and particularly enthusiastic over stellar recommendations. In other words, a good recommendation will not move the needle one inch, whereas an excellent recommendation can help a student get admitted. Here are five important facts about teacher recommendations.

Fact #1

You must ask for recommendations. Teachers do not write recommendations unless they are asked to do so by students. Also, some teachers will only grant a certain number of recommendations, since otherwise they may be inundated with requests. Therefore, you should ask for recommendations early. I always recommend that students ask at the end of junior year instead of at the beginning of senior year.

Fact #2

Most colleges prefer that recommendations come from two teachers who know you well. For these colleges, it does not matter which subjects the teachers teach. However, some colleges require recommendations from an English teacher, a science teacher, or a math teacher. You must check the individual requirements for each college.

Fact #3

If your school uses Naviance, it may also use the recommendation feature built into Naviance. If this is the case, then you should check to see whether your school allows you to submit what are commonly referred to as “cheats sheets” or “brag sheets.” These are questionnaires that you and/or your parents fill out to help the teacher write an accurate recommendation. Typically, your answers will provide teachers with information they are not otherwise aware of. For example, questions may ask about your extracurricular activities, and specifically those associated with school spirit.

Fact #4

Excellent recommendations are earned, not asked for. You cannot ask a teacher to write you a great recommendation if that teacher does not feel like you deserve it. As stated earlier, most recommendations are lukewarm. If a teacher feels obligated to write you a recommendation but does not feel that you deserve an excellent recommendation, it is highly likely that you will receive one of these perfunctory and highly ineffective recommendations. Therefore, an important strategy is to identify your recommenders at the beginning of junior year, or even earlier if you have the same teachers in earlier grades and do everything possible to make yourself valuable to those teachers inside and outside of the classroom. In other words, if you want an excellent recommendation, you must earn it.

Fact #5

For most colleges, recommendation requests (and the recommendations themselves) will be submitted through the Common Application. Therefore, you must be familiar with this function. Also, it is very important that you keep a watchful eye on your applications to make sure that the recommenders you have selected have written and submitted their applications on time.


Recommendations are one of the many factors that will determine which colleges accept you. Each of these 20 factors, considered separately, plays a role in college admission, and it is the accumulation of excellent responses to categorical questions that will open the door for you to admission at the best colleges in America. This is where a dedicated college consultant can make all the difference in your admissions success. Please call 800-469-1028 (Chinese line: 833-888-6232) to schedule your free consultation or email us at