Whether you’re applying for a Canadian scholarship, a college in the United States or a program at a U.K. school, chances are you’ll need a letter of reference. These letters are usually required as part of the application process, and are written by the high school teacher of your choice.
These letters have different names and, depending on what you’re applying for, they could have different objectives. Some letters are dry and focused only on your academic record. Others are more general, and also touch on your passion or character. No matter what it’s called, it’s important you put some serious thought into asking the right teacher.
In some cases, a letter of reference can make or break an application. So here’s a step-by-step guide to getting a great letter of reference from a teacher.
1) Read the fine print
There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all letter of reference. The criteria can (and likely will) be different for everything you apply for. The criteria will always tell you the kind of letter they want. U.K. school applications, for example, only want academic proof that you’re a good fit for that specific program – no fluff. Most U.S. apps and scholarships are less restrictive. They want to know about how you present yourself as a student and person, including traits like self-confidence, work ethic and integrity. Even before choosing who you want to write it, make sure you know what the application is looking for.
2) Find the best person for the job
Take time to really consider which teacher you want to write the letter of reference. You’re basically asking, “Will you please speak on my behalf?” Some letters of reference will be a no-brainer: if you’re applying for a biology program in the U.K., you’ll want to ask a lab science teacher, not your English teacher.
It’s the more general letter of reference for admission to U.S. schools that requires serious thought. You’ll want to ask a teacher who knows you well as a student. Think about a teacher with whom you have a great connection. I recommend students choose a teacher who has seen you at your most engaged and passionate in their class.
Once you’ve picked your No. 1 choice, choose a back-up teacher!
3) Ask in person one month before deadline
Don’t ask for a letter of reference via email! And don’t wait until the deadline is a week away!
Meet face-to-face with that teacher and ask politely if they would write a letter of reference for you. An in-person meeting gives you a chance to remind them of all the great things about you that they can write about. It also gives you a chance to explain what it is you’re applying for – they need to know that!
They might have a dozen other students who have asked for a letter of reference, too. The more time you give them, the better the letter-writer will feel about writing it for you.
And there is a chance the teacher might say no. Maybe they have too many other letters to write or maybe they think there’s a better teacher to write it. Don’t be discouraged or offended. Listen to what they say and approach a back-up teacher.
4) Follow up right away
After you meet with a teacher, follow up with more information via email. Send them a link to scholarship you’re applying for, or a link to the specific program, plus a reminder of your deadline.
In most cases, St. Michaels University School students don’t need to send a follow-up email. We use Naviance.com, an online database that helps manage a student’s post-secondary applications. After meeting with a teacher, students need to submit a letter of reference request through Naviance. The online tool will send all of the application specifics to that teacher, and you won’t need to do any further follow-up. The teacher will submit the confidential letter directly through Naviance and you will not see it.
5) Reach out as the deadline approaches
In 90% of cases, this step isn’t necessary. After you’ve requested the letter of reference from a teacher, your university counsellor or academic advisor will be the one to receive the letter and file it with your application.
There are some scholarships, however, that can be student-driven and you may need to be the one to compile all of the necessary documents. Only in these rare cases, as your deadline nears, you should reach out to the teacher to remind them of your application due date.
6) Give thanks
Express your gratitude for your teacher’s help. Writing a letter of reference is not a small or inconsequential task. It can take a teacher hours to complete each letter, and their words are an important part of your application.
Thank them for putting the time and effort into your letter of reference. Give them a hand-written card or letter telling them how much you appreciate their assistance.
October and November is “letter of reference” season for most American college applicants. Take a look at your application criteria right now and make sure you have everything in place to meet your letter of reference deadline.
All Grade 12 students at SMUS work one-on-one with their academic advisor on their individual post-secondary plans – from university applications to scholarships.
Reach out to your university counsellor if you have any questions about getting a great letter of reference.