Anytime a college admissions office requires something in the college admission process it creates work for admission officers and support staff. As such, they are not going to do something unless the advantages outweigh the drawbacks. This is why over 1,100 four-year colleges in the US require at least one teacher recommendation in the college application process. The bottom line is that recommendations from 11th-grade teachers are more valuable to colleges.
Ninth- and 10th-grade teachers taught you almost two-and-a-half years from when you will be on campus, from the time (from a college’s perspective) when who you really are will matter to them. If your recommendation comes from a ninth-grade teacher, it is closer to three-and-a-half years from when you will enroll. Just this week I met with a student who told me he was going to be asking a ninth-grade teacher for a recommendation letter. Like most students, it didn’t dawn on him how this would be perceived.
The purpose of these letters of recommendation is to allow the school to know what they are getting in terms of personality, character, conduct in the classroom, academic habits and abilities, etc. The bottom line is that ninth and 10th grade is just too long ago to be seen as predictive. The one exception would be if your 10th-grade teacher continued to be able to give recent insight on you as a student and a citizen, but even then, isn’t there an 11th-grade teacher who could do this even better?
Eleventh-grade teachers are usually teaching you a more advanced course than a ninth- or 10th- grade teacher taught you. How you handle academic rigor is an important factor that matters to colleges, especially selective colleges.
I know what some of you are thinking. Why wouldn’t 12th grade be better than 11th grade? After all, it is more recent, and wouldn’t that be even more predictive? There are cases where 12th-grade teachers make sense as recommendation writers, but here is the problem with 12th-grade teachers: If you ask them to write a letter for you in the first eight weeks of school, they really don’t know you well enough to write you an accurate letter. That isn’t fair to you and it isn’t fair to them.
A few years ago, I had a teacher tell me, “I wish so much I could write the letter I wrote all over again.” The student had grown so much from late September to January and the teacher wanted to reflect that growth in her letter, but the student told her there was an October 1st scholarship deadline and therefore he needed the letter submitted before October 1st.
There was a time when senior year recommendations were more feasible, but the priority deadlines and early action deadlines keep moving up earlier and earlier into October, and even September, making it all but impossible for senior year teachers to know you well. In many parts of the country, students do not start their senior year until after Labor Day. Instead of having eight weeks, you may have less than four weeks, and those four weeks are from “the request to write the recommendation letter” to the submission. The timeline simply doesn’t work unless the school has a spring deadline, but what if you decide to add another school with an earlier deadline?
Most students don’t think about the timeline when it comes to teacher recommendations. Most students don’t think about asking a junior year teacher at the end of the junior year. They ask senior year teachers in the fall. This is exactly when they are deluged with recommendation writing requests. One surefire way to not get the best recommendation from a teacher is by asking them within weeks of the deadline, but that is what most students do. Now the teacher is irritated that you procrastinated, and now you are impinging on their time for family and other obligations. Just this week I heard about a teacher who had to ask the principal for two days off to fulfill the glut of recommendation requests they received in the fall within two weeks of their deadlines.
The student who asks their junior year teacher at the end of the junior year curries their favor just by their thoughtfulness and sensitivity by avoiding the avalanche of requests that inevitably await them in the fall. They are, in effect, giving the teacher at least three months to complete and submit their recommendation. The teacher also gets to write the letter over the summer, the season where they actually have more time to write a thorough letter without stress, pressure, or duress.
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