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How to ask for a recommendation or reference letter

FEB 14, 2020 • 9 min read

Are you planning on applying to a top US or UK university? One of the most important aspects of your application are letters of recommendation (US) or reference letters (UK).

They may seem like a stressful part of the application to organise, but for top-tier universities like Harvard; with an admission rate as low as 4.6%, letters of recommendation are fundamental in supporting your application.

You may be daunted by the process of asking and attaining these letters.

You might be confused about how many and from whom you should ask letters.

You may be wondering what etiquette should be used when approaching somebody for a letter.

You might be wondering what to say in order to get the kinds of letters befitting of a top college application.

The good news is that there is no need to worry - check out our guide below on asking for a letter of recommendation:

Who to ask?

For the US, recommendation letters are submitted via the Common App (by the referee). When applying to various colleges; they will tell you how many letters they want and from whom they want letters from. Many such as Harvard ask for a minimum of 3, including one from your school guidance counsellor, and two from teachers. Some colleges will allow you to include many more and from more kinds of people, such as from sports coaches, mentors and friends. While these can help you distinguish yourself from the crowd, quality is always better than quantity, and you should only include those who add a meaningful contribution to the application. Remember that the admission officers are more interested in the content of the letters rather than from who they are from.

In selecting teachers, you should ask those that teach a relevant subject, know you well, and like you as a person. Since the best letters are those that feel intimate and personal, it really shows when the teacher can speak of you, your strengths and your character in specific detail, as opposed to a distant and generic reference that could be about anybody. Using teachers that have taught you for several years may be ideal, since they may be able to talk about your growth academically and as a person over a longer time. Those that know you outside of the classroom or are familiar with your ECLs may also be beneficial.

For the UK you also don't need to worry about submitting this yourself, as when you enter the details of the referee through UCAS they will be prompted to complete this. The main difference for the UK is that you are only required (and allowed) one reference letter- which will go to any university you apply to. This should be from someone who is best able to comment on your academic abilities, your commitment and motivation for your chosen degree course.

For help submitting the best application to any university try our admissions support service. Our holistic approach provides support across all areas of the US and UK university application process. We assist you to find your best-fit university, create a personalised roadmap, ace your standardised tests, craft the perfect essay, build candidacy through extracurriculars, and more.

When to ask?

It's important to be on top of your dates by which the letters of recommendation will be due, and to be organised with your letters well in advance. Some counselors or teachers may also be inundated in letters or are very busy themselves, so it's important to ask them early and give them ample time to attend to yours. We recommend that you have organised the letters at least a month before the application is due, and perhaps even earlier than that to be safe. When asking for the recommendation, always let them know the deadline for submitting the letter, and perhaps also send polite reminders as the deadline approaches.

How to ask?

The golden rule is to always ask first in person. Email may seem less scary, but asking first by email can seem removed and impolite for such a big favour. It might also be intimidating to find time to ask, as teachers don’t like being asked when they are busy in class or during lunch. It is best to ask them just after class or school, or perhaps you could ask them politely when they might be free to have a quick appointment. Soon after asking them briefly and warmly in person, send them a follow up email with greater details of what’s involved.

Ultimately you should remember to never be too nervous to ask, since teachers, coaches and your other referees should always be willing to help you achieve your goals and attend your dream university. They may have also been asked in the past, or be expecting other students to do the same, and are used to the process.

What to ask?

There are some key tricks that you can use to ensure the letter is everything you might hope for. Firstly, always give the writer some context behind the rest of the application. Between all its elements, you want all of your information and selling points to be consistent, and it is always a good idea to send a small summary of the other aspects of the application including information about your academic achievements, extracurriculars, and perhaps personal essay talking points. These may also be able to provide some ideas and focal points for the recommendation to talk about, and overall improve its quality.

It is also very important to provide some guidance. Some people may have never written a letter of recommendation before, especially those who are not teachers or counselors. Providing a structure or template for these people are essential to ensure that the letters conform to what the universities are looking for. Even for those that have some experience will know that every applicant and letter is different, and providing some guidance as to what points you would like the letter to emphasise will be useful for the writer.

However, be careful that you do not cross the line by putting words in the mouth of the writer or writing a draft yourself. The colleges that ask for these letters of recommendation try and make sure they are written genuinely and honestly by the authors. Asking the writer to see their letter before they send it could also be seen as a bit nosey. If they freely choose to share the letter or discuss any of its content, it may be assuring, but you should never impose disclosure.

And Finally…. How to Thank Them

A deeply personal and thought-out letter can take hours for somebody to think about and write, yet people are certainly not obliged to do so, or will get paid for their time. It is therefore important to show your appreciation of them giving up their time to assist. In your initial face-to-face and the follow up email, it is polite to thank them in advance for their time. Additionally, you should certainly thank them after they have submitted the letter, and when you are finally accepted, thank them for helping you on your journey.

Applying to universities can be daunting, but Crimson Education is the world’s leading university admissions support company specialising in helping students gain entry to some of the world’s most competitive universities including Oxford, Cambridge and the Ivy League.

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