Who NOT to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation

Padya Paramita

Who NOT to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation

As you start looking through the requirements for different colleges, you’ll notice that there’s one component that’s not in your hand: the letter of recommendation. This element is required by every university to get an understanding of your performance in class beyond your transcript 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 who not to ask for a letter of recommendation. 

As you think about who you should and shouldn’t approach, remember that you should prioritize instructors who know you best and can provide a concrete picture of what it’s like to have you in class. To provide you with more of an idea about who not to ask for a letter of recommendation, 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.

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

As you consider who not to ask for a letter of recommendation, 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 from include someone who knew you a long time ago. If someone taught you in the ninth grade and you continued staying in touch, great! But if they only had you as a student for a semester in the ninth grade and has 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 inclusions among the list of who not to ask for a letter of recommendation. 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 use it against your case and dismiss 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 list of who not to ask for a recommendation. 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!

How to Find the Ideal Recommender

Now that you’ve got a better idea of who not to ask for a letter of recommendation, you might be wondering who is ideal to help out with this component of your college application. Well, simply put, it’s the exact opposite of the people you shouldn’t ask. This includes teachers who can speak to your assets, who have known you for a longer time, and those who are more aware of how you’ve grown throughout your time in high school. Instead of picking someone who doesn’t know you, think about who does, because your letters should discuss why they believe you’re suited for a school as well as include concrete examples of your abilities and performance. If a particular instructor hasn’t worked closely with you, or doesn’t know what you’re like now, they won’t be able to support you accordingly.

Some of the best people to ask are:

  • Teachers who have known you the longest
  • Teachers you’ve had more recently
  • Teachers who you’ve worked the most closely with
  • Teacher with whom you’ve worked with in an extracurricular setting, such as your debate team coach or dance teacher
  • Teachers who taught the subjects that align with your goals and interests
  • Teachers with connections to one of your top-choice colleges

These are all people who have had the chance to get to know you as well as familiarize themselves with you in a deeper context than the people in the list of those you shouldn’t ask. Rather than choosing someone who taught you for a semester in the ninth grade, a teacher who’s taught you in the eleventh or twelfth grade knows what you’re like right now instead of providing outdated information that may  no longer apply to you. Someone who’s fond of you or has worked with you consistently is also more likely to say yes to writing the letter over someone who doesn’t have the best impression of you. As you navigate the letter of recommendation process, remember that these help admissions officers picture whether or not you would fit in on their campus as well as contribute meaningfully — so you absolutely want to choose someone who has confidence in you and can talk about you with the utmost approval. 

It’s not easy picking your recommenders. However, once you eliminate the list of who not to ask for a letter of recommendation, hopefully your contenders are more narrowed. Remember that it’s important to choose someone who knows you well and can convey why you’re a wonderful candidate. Consider the people you like as well as those who have a clear idea of who you are. Good luck!

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