Getting the Most Out of Your Teacher Recommendation

Here’s our strategy for approaching this application requirement

A student speaking with an adviser.

While transcripts are a key component of your college application, grades and course titles only tell part of your academic story.

Recommendation letters provide firsthand insight into how you perform in the classroom (which helps us imagine how you may perform in our classrooms).

Your teacher may have the last word when it comes to your recommendation, but here are some tips you can use to make the most of this valuable opportunity.

Tip #1: Choose the Appropriate Recommender

NYU requires one teacher recommendation, preferably from a core academic subject. This is regardless of what you intend to study.

Whenever possible, choose a teacher who taught you in your most recently completed school year (for instance, 11th grade in the United States). This way the recommendation reflects the most challenging coursework you completed so far and represents the perspective of someone who witnessed your development over a full year.

As glowing as the recommendations may be, a recommendation from a club adviser, artistic director, or athletic coach is not appropriate in this situation. Unless they were also a core academic teacher, in which case you can kill two birds with one stone!

In essence, a teacher recommendation serves as a “highlight reel” for your performance in their class. Topics explored may include:

  • How you engage with the academic material
  • Your strengths
  • How you approach challenges or setbacks
  • Your contribution to the classroom experience (e.g., if you were absent from class one day, what would be lost)

These are not actual recommendation prompts. But hopefully you get the idea that a quality recommendation consists of much more than what grade you received on the final. Perhaps you were so masterful with the material in one class that you hardly interacted with your teacher all year. Do you think that teacher would be the best choice to write your recommendation?

Tip #2: Master the Art of the Ask

Recommendation writing takes time. Ask your teacher early. Some schools have rules on when you’re allowed to ask. If your school does not have a formal policy, give yourself enough time to get used to the class experience before you pop the question (at least one semester). Follow up on any verbal agreements with a written confirmation.

Your teacher may request a meeting to discuss your recommendation or ask for a sample of your work to jog their memory. (Tip #3: Hold on to your graded papers or projects from the previous year.) They may want to know why you’ve asked them to write your recommendation. “Because it’s a requirement,” is not a good answer.

As you finalize your college list, let your teacher know how they should submit your recommendation (e.g., Common Application, college/guidance office, email, postal service) and your earliest application deadline.

Tip #4: Be Patient

As the deadline approaches, you may be tempted to bombard your teacher with daily emails requesting a status update. Resist the urge. Typically, a courtesy reminder two weeks before your earliest deadline is sufficient. Build in extra time if those two weeks include a school break. If changes to your college list require your teacher to take any action, notify them as soon as possible.

Tip #5: Practice Gratitude

After all, it is an ask. Thank your recommenders early and often. And when you start hearing back from your schools, don’t leave them in the dark. They’ve supported you on your journey and are eager to celebrate your good news!