By Yuki Kondo-Shah, Public Affairs Officer, U.S. Consulate Fukuoka

Many U.S. universities require students to submit two teacher recommendations as a part of the application package. This may be your first time asking a teacher for a letter of recommendation. It also may be the teacher's first time writing a letter for a U.S. university, so let's discuss why this is such an important part of your application and how to ask for a strong American-style recommendation letter.

Why are these important?
The recommendation letter is an opportunity for the teacher to spotlight a student’s personality in the context of that teacher’s class, according to Tania Castro-Bradt, co-director of the Head-Royce School in Oakland, California, one of America’s top high schools. “It is here where college admission offices are able to get a sense of a student’s fit within the intellectual community of their school and envision how they might fit within theirs.”

Here’s a quick list of what to think about when you ask a teacher to write your letter:

1. Pick a teacher who likes you. 
This seems obvious, but I’ve read surprisingly many letters where the teacher commented on a student’s tardiness, lack of participation, or rude behavior.

2. Pick a teacher who knows your academic interests and passions.
The grade you got in the class isn’t so important. You may be tempted to ask only teachers who gave you As to write recommendations, but that’s not necessarily the best strategy. Remember that the admissions officer will have your transcript handy, so she can see where you got the As. These letters aren’t going to be helpful if all the teacher says is, “Mariko is a great student. She came to class on time and turned in her homework. I gave her an A+.” On the other hand, let’s say you struggled in a class where you loved the subject and brought your grade up from a B to an A- through hard work and determination. If you put in the extra effort to get help during office hours and completed extra assignments to grasp the material better, that teacher’s recommendation letter might sound like this: “Mariko was the hardest working student I’ve had in many years. Her passion was evident by the fact that she was always coming in after school to discuss the material, and she’s brought in extra articles about the subject to share with the class. She lit up the class with her great contributions to class discussions and welcomed other students who were struggling to her study groups. I was impressed with the innovative ways she interpreted the material and came up with solutions to a problem that I hadn’t even thought of!” The second letter gives the admissions officer more perspective about what kind of student Mariko will be in college. Teacher’s letters aren’t just about grades; they’re also about your personality, leadership, and compassion for others.

3. Be organized, and ask teachers to write letters at least a month or so in advance. 
I could always tell when the teacher didn’t have enough time to compose a thoughtful, well-constructed letter that reflects all the dimensions of the student. In highly selective admissions, there are thousands of very competitive applicants, so an average letter can weaken the entire application. Respect your teachers, and always give them enough time to write, edit, and submit your letter. I recommend notifying teachers by the spring of your second-to-last year in high school that you would like them to write a recommendation letter and giving them a copy of your personal statement if they would find it helpful.

4. Always, always, always follow up! 
Writing recommendation letters take time and effort, and you should always thank the teachers that help you in your application process. Also keep in mind that the letter must be submitted in English, so your teacher may need to ask the English teachers at your school to translate the original letter. Both versions will need to be submitted to the university.

5. Read the instructions.
Make sure that you read the university’s instructions about what years and subjects the letter should cover. For example, most highly selective schools want letters from the junior or senior year of high school. The recommendations need to come from academic subject teachers – Japanese, social science, math, science, or a foreign language – not from music, arts or P.E. teachers.

6. One last thing: Get to know your teachers.
Especially for subjects that you are really passionate about! You should always participate in class discussions when you can. If you share the same academic interests as your instructor, he or she can give you more information to start your own independent study or give you advice about summer internships, research, or what schools you might apply to.

If you follow these tips, you will be well on your way to developing strong relationships with teachers who will want to advocate for you! There is nothing better for an admissions counselor than opening a letter that begins, “I’ve been waiting two years to write this letter, and I asked Mariko if I could write a letter on her behalf…”

Yuki Kondo-ShahThis article is the fourth in a five-part series for students and their teachers on how to prepare college applications, in which Consulate Fukuoka Public Affairs Officer Yuki-Kondo Shah shares her observations and expertise from her previous career in admissions as an interviewer at Dartmouth College and an application reader at Stanford University and Harvard University.

Read the other articles in the series:

Click here for more information on studying in the U.S. and EducationUSA programs throughout Japan.