The Best and Worst People to Ask for Recommendation Letters

Padya Paramita

The Best and Worst People to Ask for Recommendation Letters

Letters of recommendation are required by every university to get an understanding of your performance in class beyond your transcript and from the perspective of someone who’s not you. As you think about people who can speak highly of you, it’s also important to consider both the best and worst people to ask for recommendation letters.

As you think about who you should and shouldn’t approach, remember that you should prioritize the instructors who know you best and who can provide a concrete picture of what it’s like to have you in class. To provide you with more of an idea about the best and worst people to ask for recommendation letters, I’ve provided a list of people who won’t be the best options for highlighting why colleges should admit you, along with outlining who you should approach as you take the next step towards college admissions.

The Best People to Ask

Long story short, your letters of recommendation should be written by the teachers who know you best. Here are some suggestions on teachers you could ask:

Teachers who have known you the longest 

By seeing you flourish as a student and person over a significant period of time, teachers who have known you the longest are valuable in emphasizing how you’ve grown since they first met you. They have more years to pull from when thinking about anecdotes that capture times that you impressed them, or instances where you have shown desirable qualities that colleges seek. 

Teachers you’ve had more recently 

Your recommender should also be able to speak to your current performance at school. If you choose a teacher who only had you in the 9th grade but hasn’t kept up with you since then, the information they provide is probably outdated. Choose at least one of your teachers from 11th grade to provide a recent account of your academic presence. The second choice can be a bit more flexible. As you think about the best and worst teachers to ask for recommendation letters, consider who can talk about who you are today.

Teachers with whom you’ve worked the most closely

Chances are, teachers who you have worked more closely with will have more examples to draw from and are more likely to make their letters personal. This could be a teacher you’ve conducted an independent study with, or gone to see after school to ask questions on the material. Or, this could be someone you’ve taken the initiative to get to know and can thus speak to your assertiveness and personality. 

Teacher with whom you’ve worked in an extracurricular setting 

When thinking about the best and worst teachers to ask for recommendation letters, consider extracurriculars as well. Choosing a teacher who has seen your work inside and outside the classroom can add a nuanced layer to your application. Admissions officers can learn not only about your academic skills, but more about how your teacher views your community involvement and extracurriculars. This could be your science teacher who is also the coach of the robotics team and has seen you thrive as a student and team player. It could also be your art teacher with whom you’ve worked on building your portfolio and who can speak to the hard work and commitment you put into each piece of art. 

Teachers with connections to the college 

If one of your high school teachers is an alum of one of your top choice schools, you can take advantage of their familiarity with both parties. Since they know the school, they can speak for how you would fit in with the community. However, if you’ve never taken a class with them, showing up at their office out of the blue may not be the wisest decision. Only ask if they’ve had experience teaching or supervising you.

Teachers who taught the subjects that align with your goals and interests 

Finally, as you think about the best and worst teachers to ask for recommendation letters, remember that it is wise to ask teachers in fields similar to your intended major for your recommendation letters. Who else to better support your college application for a prospective math major than your high school math teacher? This way, the teacher can convey your prowess in the subject and concretely discuss your passion towards continuing your studies.. Since the subject you’re choosing for your major is possibly a class you enjoyed in high school, your teacher can also speak for the enthusiasm you bring to each class and for learning new topics. However, you should not ask two teachers from the same discipline (for example, two English teachers). While at least one letter should come from a teacher in the same discipline as your intended major, for your second letter, ask an instructor from a different subject to show that you’re skilled in more than just your field of interest.

The Worst People to Ask

A Teacher Who’s Famous but Doesn’t Know You

As you consider the best and worst teachers to ask for recommendation letters, one of the biggest factors to remember is to avoid people who may seem alluring on paper, but cannot really talk about what you can bring to a school. Many students believe that getting a teacher who is well renowned can help them receive a coveted acceptance letter from a college. However, if they’re famous, but they aren’t familiar with you as a person or your work, asking them is pointless. The recognition won’t benefit you at all if the letter is simply full of generic statements that don’t capture your personality or abilities accurately. It’s not worth picking a well-known figure for a subpar reference when there are others who can do a far better job of building you up as a must-have candidate.

A Teacher Who Taught You Early, and for a Short Time

While teachers who have known you a longer time can definitely attest to your skills, people you don’t want to ask for a recommendation include someone who knew you a long time ago. If someone taught you in the 9th grade and you continued staying in touch, great! But if they only had you as a student for a semester in the 9th grade and they have no idea what you’ve been up to since, that’s definitely not someone you want talking about you to admissions officers. Such a recommender probably has no idea what you’re interested in, how you’ve grown since they’ve taught you, and can’t provide any specific instances that your performance stood out to them. Prioritize people who actually know you now and can include statements about how you’re an impressive applicant.

Someone Who’s Related to You

This is one of the more obvious no’s in the list of the best and worst teachers to ask for recommendation letters. Think of it this way—your parent, uncle, or cousin obviously want the best for you, and they want colleges to pick you. However, admissions officers would not take a letter from one of these people seriously because they’re also clearly biased. Recommendations should come from more objective references. Even though a relative might be a teacher in your class or the coach of your soccer team, colleges want to see these letters from people who met you in the context of the course or the extracurricular, rather than someone who also sees you at family dinners. They may not take such a recommendation seriously and can even use it against your case, dismissing any good things that the letter might include. So, even though it might be tempting, don’t choose an adult who’s also your relative! 

Your Best Friend (Unless It’s a Peer Recommendation)

Going off of the last point, friends are also a big no when it comes to who you should choose to write your college recommendations. Even though the team captain of your favorite club may be able to concretely highlight how you’ve been an asset to the squad, if they are your peer, they should absolutely not be writing your college letter of recommendation. Yes, they can be people you’re friendly with, but by no means should a component set specifically for those who have taught you in class or supervised you in a project come from someone who is your age or hangs out with you on a daily basis. 

Schools such as Dartmouth College and Davidson College have a specific peer recommendation requirement that allows a friend or sibling to elaborate more on what you’re like as a friend, colleague, or teammate. Your friend should save their endless praise about how you’re a joy to have as a project partner for this element. Colleges will again count out your candidacy once they see that your recommendation letter has come from a fellow high schooler.

Someone Who Doesn’t Have the Best Impression of You

This is one of the more obvious entries to the worst category on the list of the best and worst teachers to ask for recommendation letters. Remember that your college letters of recommendation exist to supplement the rest of your application and vouch for how you’re a standout student who can bring a unique perspective to campus. Now, this obviously means that the writer has to like you to some extent. There’s no reason that your choice should be leaning towards someone you don’t have the best relationship with, or someone who only knows you because they taught a class where you received a low grade. As you consider different recommenders ask yourself if you can name one or more instances where you’ve made a strong impression on them or worked closely with them. If the answer is no, they’re not the right recommender for you.

A Coach from a Sport or Club You No Longer Participate in

Similar to the last point, if you had joined a team, but then because of a fallout or another negative circumstance, ended up leaving it, the coach from the group is not the best person to recommend you for college. There are many reasons why students leave a team, from personal to professional. No matter how much you may have liked the supervisor or coach however, if they only knew you for a short period of time, they will  not be able to concretely discuss your best qualities, nor can they speak towards your level of commitment. Instead, think about who currently supervises you—or has done so for a longer period of time—and can make a better case for your candidacy.

Someone Who Doesn’t Fit the Description

Colleges often describe who they want to see letters of recommendation from. For example, Yale University states: 

Request recommendations from two teachers who have taught you in core academic subjects (e.g. English, Foreign Language, Mathematics, Science, Social Studies) who know you well, and who have seen you at your best. It is preferable, but not required, that recommendations come from teachers who have taught you during your junior or senior year of high school. 

The instructions make it very clear that the letter needs to be from a teacher who has taught one of the subjects mentioned. Don’t send one recommendation from your math teacher, but then choose an employer or a coach for the second one. When applying to college, it’s extremely important that you follow all instructions. You can ask the others to write an additional letter, but when it comes to the mandatory letters, don’t look for wiggle room. Follow the protocol!

As you can see from the list of the best and worst teachers to ask for recommendation letters, your choice is closely connected with the person’s ability to write an effective letter on your behalf. An expansive letter full of praise should flow if you choose recommenders who are very familiar with your personality and skills. If they have seen you work through different academic and extracurricular capacities, they won’t be grasping for straws on what to write. Admissions officers can tell from vivid details that this is a teacher who’s seen your growth closely and has many stories to tell about your qualifications as an applicant.

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