Seeking Mr. or Mrs. Write: How to ask for college reference letters

Show of hands—who has recently tried Googling “Who to ask for college letters of reference?” or “How many letters do colleges want?” or even “How to get into college without having to ask for letters because that is really nerve-wracking?”

Okay, maybe not that last one.

But if you’ve searched for advice on who to choose for reference letters, you’ve probably seen the overwhelming consensus to “Ask someone who really knows you.”

You’re probably thinking, um, gee, thanks, that’s great advice, but I’m kind of trying to decide my future over here and I barely feel like I even know myself, so how am I supposed to find people that know me even better?

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I hear you. That’s why I’ve compiled some tips on selecting and asking your college references—and especially don’t miss #6!


1.  Quality over quantity:Image result for storytelling

There’s a reason colleges generally ask for two letters—two give us a more holistic look at who you are from different sources. While most colleges will accept additional letters, two high-quality letters are better than five from teachers who only had you in sophomore electives. The quality of the letter often reflects the quality of the relationship you have with the person, so think about those who have either known you for a significant length of time or could share a compelling story about you. The best letters of recommendation contain anecdotes. Think of people who can show, not just tell, your achievements and strengths with specific stories and experiences.

2.  The academic reference:

Think about your core subjects and the major you are applying for. If you’re applying for Mechanical Engineering, you might want to think about your calculus or physics teacher who could speak to your progress and aptitude for the subject. If you’re thinking a history or pre-law minor, think about an English or history teacher who could speak to your critical thinking, writing, and interpersonal skills. You don’t necessarily have to choose the teacher for the major you are applying for.  If one of your teachers has also been your debate coach or Yearbook advisor all four years, he/she could speak to your academic ability and your leadership and teamwork skills with stories and specific examples.

3.  The character or spiritual reference:

This reference tends to give students the most pause. Think about someone who has seen you grow as a person or witnessed your character and ethics in action. This could be a pastor/priest/minister, a youth group leader, or someone who has served as a mentor in your spiritual and personal growth. Regardless of title or role, a good way to know you’ve found the right person is to ask yourself, “Does this person know my character, and how has this person seen me demonstrate my character and live out my values?” If you have an answer, that person is probably a good pick.

4.  Greatness takes time:

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and your reference letter should not be requested the night before the deadline! Once you have an idea of who you want to ask, be proactive—ask them early! Try to avoid your references’ busiest seasons during the school year, and make it simple for them. Provide an addressed, stamped envelope they can send the letter in, or provide an email address or fax number for the admissions office.

5.  Be personal in how you ask:Image result for resume

When I asked my references for recommendation letters, I tried to include a specific event or personal connection with my request to jog their memory. You don’t need to butter them up (“Your class was life-changing!”) but a simple “I think you could really speak to how I’ve grown spiritually through Young Life,” or “I am really proud of how my writing has improved with your mentoring,” can help provide some context for your request. Also, be sure to give your references a copy of your resume—they may not know about your recent citizenship award or captain position on the basketball team, so a resume will provide them with a fuller picture of your strengths and “selling points,” so to speak. Lastly, don’t forget to give your references a thank you note after they write your letters!

6.  Don’t stress:

Recommendation letters are just a piece of the puzzle that makes up your application. If someone declines to write a letter, it’s not the end of the world. Some teachers are asked to write hundreds of letters every year, and they simply can’t do them all. Other options are bound to come to mind when you take some time to brainstorm. Also, unless a college requires specific components for rec letters, trust your reference with the content.

My final takeaway:

When it comes to selecting the perfect people to write letters of reference, I have good news and bad. The bad news is that you may not get a stunningly heartfelt, tearjerker letter that will make Nicholas Sparks applaud and the entire admissions office admit you on the spot. The good news is that Mr. or Mrs. Write is out there. Pray for wisdom and go find them!

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