This year several students wishing to apply to private schools made claims that they could not get any of their junior or senior year teachers to write them recommendations. Eventually the truth emerged: they were too nervous to ask for a recommendation.
Their dilemmas parallel that of the author of ‘Absolutely TERRIFIED to ask for Letters of Rec?’ which posted in College Confidential on 10-17-2010:
“…basically my problem is that I’m kind of shy so I never really participated in any of my classes. And on top of that I’m a straight B-student. So I didn’t get close to any of my teachers, nor did I do particularly well in any classes. I don’t know ANY of my teachers that would know enough about me (either as a student or as a person) to write a letter for me. Can someone give advice for those who are average students and shy in class? …But I’m so, SO afraid that any of my teachers will flat-out say ‘I’m sorry but I don’t know you well enough,’ if I ask.”
First, before agonizing over getting a recommendation, check the admissions requirements to make sure you actually need one. One of the responses to ‘Absolutely terrified’ mentions that many colleges do not require recommendations, such as the University of Washington, UC, or the Cal State systems. Others make teacher recommendations optional (Purdue). Still others require only one teacher recommendation (Northeastern); while many highly selective schools require two (Grinnell College, Yale, MIT — which asks for one from a teach in math/science and one from a teacher in social sciences/English, Dartmouth — which in addition to the two teacher recommendations requires a peer recommendation).
One aid to overcoming shyness in getting the recommendation is to pull together a list of three to four teachers from your junior or senior year whom you would like to ask. You might prioritize by listing at the top the teacher of your favorite subject or the subject you are considering majoring in. If you do not get a positive answer from the first, move on. Having options alleviates that desperate feeling that everything is riding upon one teacher’s response.
Another student in the College Confidential thread mentioned that she would get to the door of the teacher’s office and turn around. She recommended sending the teacher an email the day before setting a time to discuss recommendations therefore making a commitment to go through that door.
On the other hand, many suggest, unless shyness renders you speechless, it is best to approach a potential recommender in person so that a teacher can place a face with a name. Moreover making the connection in person shows care and initiative — two qualities welcome in any recommendation letter.
Pulling together your resume ahead of time is smart. At the very least, bring along an activity list, which quickly summarizes what you have been doing over your high school year. If you want to impress the potential recommendation writer, you might add a cover letter with all the schools needing a recommendation, and a ‘student profile’ that is often available at many counseling offices. The more details you can supply the more credible and meaningful your recommendation might become.
Additionally, it is likely you have work from a class that you might be proud of and that warrants bringing to a recommender’s attention. For key classes you take it is a good idea to set up files on your computer or your USB stick. Have them at your ready to send to a recommender.
No matter how awkward the recommendation process might seem, the more comfortable you can become with it the better. It takes people to open doors. Smile at them, provide them with what they need to do the job, and thank them profusely afterwards. Anyone, even the shiest among us, when she is sincere, polite and prepared cannot be overly recommended.
Ralph Becker, founder of Ivy College Prep, and a resident of Long Beach, has been counseling students for the last 11 years. A former Yale Alumni interviewer, he holds a certificate in college counseling from UCLA Extension, and has published SAT* Vocab 800. firstname.lastname@example.org.