Student Life

How to Ask For Recommendation Letters as an Online Student

Never fear, online students -- asking for recommendation letters is a lot simpler than you think.

Student Contributor, Danielle Steen

November 13, 2022

How to Ask For Recommendation Letters as an Online Student
Online students can ask for letters of recommendation from teachers, mentors, and community leaders.
Recommendation letters are usually a necessary part of the college application process, and being an online student doesn't exempt you from that step. But, how is an online student supposed to go about asking for recommendation letters when your teachers hardly know you as a person?

How to Ask For Recommendation Letters as an Online Student

I'll admit, your letters will likely not be as in-depth or accurate as they would be from an in-person teacher, due to the fact that interaction with your online teachers is inherently quite limited. Don't stress, though; here are a few steps you can take to ensure that you get the most out of your recommendation letters.

Put Yourself Out There As Much As Possible

Going above and beyond always gets noticed, especially in a classroom setting. Even though your options for making yourself known in an online classroom are very limited, you can still make sure you stand out. For example, let's say there is a sudden participation opportunity, such as the availability to talk on the mic, or a question is being asked. Jump on it! In an online setting, a lot of students don't necessarily go out of their way to do those things, which is fine, but you won't be all that memorable to your teachers if you go this route. So, use this to your advantage and contribute as much as possible! If you're one of the few people that hop on the microphone or always have valuable answers to questions, your teacher will notice that and deem you as a valuable contributor who is excited to learn.
If you're planning things early, start doing this as soon as possible since, with online schools, it's not uncommon to have the same teacher at least twice. Start building that rapport early!

Identify Possible Writers

Think about each of your teachers and assess how well they know you, how much you participate in their class, the general feedback they leave on your assignments, and how willing you think they might be to set time aside for you and your letter. For instance, some teachers are incredibly casual and, dare I say, chill in their live classes. Others are pretty strict and don't often engage in small talk or take time to get to know more about their students, which is fine–every teacher has a different teaching style, after all.
Still, this might be useful information to consider, as a teacher from the latter example may not know enough about you to write a proper letter for you. This isn't always the case, though, so it's ultimately up to you to evaluate your teacher's possible willingness. Another teacher you might want to avoid considering would be a teacher who has an incredibly large class. This is simply because your comments and participation are likely to get lost in the noise. This isn't always the case, but it's something to think about carefully as smaller class sizes typically mean more individual attention, which also means that your teacher will probably know you if you often provide valuable contributions in their class. You can also make a choice by considering the feedback your teachers leave on assignments. If you have a particular teacher who frequently leaves in-depth feedback on your assignments, they might be a great way to go as they will likely have more to say about your work style and abilities than a teacher who leaves the feedback section blank or copy/pastes.

Prepare an Impressive Brag Sheet

Though the tips given in step one will get you far, bringing a brag sheet will do you wonders. To put it simply, a brag sheet is a document that showcases who you are outside of the classroom. Since your online teachers won't have a whole lot to go off of besides your grades and assignments, they won't really know who you, the person, are. This can lead to an inaccurate or lackluster letter of recommendation. So, it's important to provide them with a brag sheet that would include only important and relevant accomplishments–a brag sheet is meant to make the letter-writing process simpler, not more complicated. A brag sheet will also save your teacher a lot of time! Instead of trying to fill a page, they can write based on both what they know and what you provide. In turn, you'll be securing yourself a glowing letter of recommendation. Bottom line is, don't underestimate the value of the good ol’ brag sheet! So, what should be put on a brag sheet? Well, that is completely up to you, but a good (albeit simplified) list of possible mentions are: • Any awards/honors you have received from the 10th grade and onward • Particularly high SAT/ACT scores • Important extracurriculars that support your intended major (but any extracurricular will do) • Leadership positions you have held • Volunteer/service hours earned • Internships you've been involved in The idea behind including extracurriculars that support your intended major is, if your recommender happens to teach a subject associated with your major (like computer fundamentals for a tech major, physics for an engineering student, etc), you can briefly (seriously, brevity is very important) explain your passion for your intended major in the email where you ask them to write your letter. Then, when they see your brag sheet, they'll notice that you've been involved in a good amount of extracurriculars that revolve around that subject, indicating your passion for the subject which they could possibly mention in their letter. Still, really any extracurricular that you are proud of and feel is substantial is just fine.

Lay Out a Plan

Ideally, you should start thinking about recommendation letters at the start of your junior year so that you have an ample amount of time to make yourself known while also identifying candidates early on. From here, you can start thinking about college application deadlines, which will help you determine when you should be asking for your letters. The end of your junior year or August of your senior year are both good times to ask, depending on when your deadlines are, how certain you are that you'll have a recommender, and whatever you prefer. If you do ask at the end of your junior year, make sure your teacher doesn't forget about your letter. You won't be able to reach out to them once summer break hits, so you'll just have to hope that your teacher isn't too busy with other things and forgets to write your letter.

Craft and Send a Clear and Polite Email

Depending on your school, you may have to use Naviance to request a letter which is a whole other process that your school counselor will have to walk you through. If that isn't the case for your school, you'll need to write and send a polite and specific email detailing what you're wanting them to do, outlining deadlines, and explaining why you chose to reach out to them in particular for a letter. This is also where you can briefly explain your academic goals to make things feel a bit more personal, but this is completely optional. Once again, brevity is very important here, so you can always save that part for the follow-up email, or not include it at all. If they agree, you'll send them another email that includes your brag sheet. Be sure to thank them, while you're at it. Then, you'll have to play the waiting game until they attach their letter to your common application. Remember that you'll never read this letter (if you're signing the FERPA release), so they'll be manually attaching the letter themselves once you add them as a recommender through the common app portal. This isn't a common application guide, though–for that, click here!

Consider Additional Recommenders

If you're not too confident that your teachers know you well enough or happen to have a different person in mind who can provide a more in-depth and accurate assessment of your character, consider adding them as an additional recommender. This person can be a mentor, community leader, employer, coach, or anyone else you know on a professional level. Having an extra recommender as an online student can act as a bit of a safety net since your teacher won't know you too well and can only say so much about you. Keep in mind, though, letters of recommendation aren't necessarily make-or-break in the admissions world, so you'll likely be fine with 1-2 letters of recommendation from your teacher(s). Voila! Asking for letters of recommendation as an online student isn't impossible, just a bit different and requires additional planning. As long as you have a plan in place, a brag sheet on hand, and are a pretty good student, your teachers will likely be more than happy to write you a good letter of recommendation.

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