It’s no surprise that homeschooled teens don’t have the deep bench of teachers on standby in the same way public schooled teens do. If your teen’s college application asks for a letter of recommendation from a teacher, you have options.
“My concern today is finding someone to write a recommendation letter for my daughter who will be a junior this coming fall. We just moved 1800 miles and don’t have any connections here. Can you help?” -HS4CC Parent Karin A.
Letters of recommendation fall into that category of things you don’t need until you do! For homeschooling parents or teens, finding teachers to write letters can be really challenging, especially when Mom is the teacher!
What is the REAL purpose of a letter?
That’s not a small question, especially for a homeschool teen. (Let’s be honest, there are still people who think homeschooled teens are holed up in their house and never interact with the outside world!) The letter helps them evaluate your teen in a way that black and white application can’t. It provides color to their story.
Choose Your Writer Carefully
I’m going to be really frank, and this may sting a bit, but don’t ask anyone to write a letter that has very poor grammar or will use a lazy form letter. A “bad” letter is not “better than nothing” and can hurt your teen’s application. When the college reviews the letter, they’ll ask themselves “why of the hundreds of people did the applicant choose this person to write their letter?” So it’s really important that your writer have decent grammar, be willing to speak to the topic/character you ask them to, as the right kind of “cred” and will allow you to read the letter ahead of time. Never let anyone send a letter on your teen’s behalf without reading it first!
I needed a letter of recommendation and had the perfect person in mind who would speak well of me and would be happy to write it. Unfortunately, the letter was too short, didn’t speak to the one main thing I needed, lacked capital letters (true story), and was just generally unprofessional. I thanked the writer, but decided not send in the letter. Of course I didn’t tell him that.-anonymous
When they ask for a letter from a teacher, but your teen has never had a teacher besides you…
It’s possible that your teen won’t have the exact type of reference they are looking for. Never lie, and never ask someone to lie or “misrepresent” their relationship with your teen just to check a box. It goes without saying, but if your teen DOES have teachers, don’t lie and say they don’t. While the person(s) you use might not have the official title as “teacher” you can still find people who can provide the kind of information they want.
What They Really Want
They want insight about your student’s enthusiasm for the content, attention to detail, thoroughness of investigation, ability to follow instructions, and curiosity as a learner from someone with a college degree.
Finding Teachers Who Aren’t Teachers
- No one is off limits– consider every person on the planet that may know your teen before you start to filter them out.
- Parent’s coworkers (current and former)
- Parent’s supervisor (current and former)
- Grandparent’s circle of friends/colleagues
- Neighbors (current and former)
- Alumni from the college/university
- Church members (current and former)
- Church leaders (current and former)
- Sports coaches or leaders (current and former)
- Committee members you’ve served with
- Tutors (current and former)
- Summer camp supervisor/leader
- Music lesson teacher (current and former)
- Clubs that you were in for more than 1 year (current and former)
- Supervisor of paid work (current and former)
- Supervisor of unpaid work (current or former)
- Someone you babysat for
- Family you taught swim lessons to
- Anyone who is on your Christmas card list
- Digital connections, especially forums or groups (current)
- Family doctor, dentist, hair stylist, personal trainer, etc.
- Mentor who inspired your teen in some passion
- An older peer who is a college graduate in the same field
FILTER: Don’t go back too far– anything before middle school won’t be relevant unless they still know and interact with your teen today.
FILTER: Has a college degree. When they ask for a letter from a teacher, they want someone with a college degree. For this filter, it can be any kind of degree, but having the educational “cred” is important for this type of letter.
FILTER: Choose people who can speak to your teen’s soft skills or character traits. Who on your list has observed your teen when she demonstrated compassion? Enthusiasm? Determination? Leadership? Punctuality? Assertiveness?
Exceed Their Request
Remember, you’re already outside the box by not having a “teacher” to submit, so it’s a good idea to give a little extra. If they want 1 letter, give them 2. If they want 2, give 3. This approach allows you to have a little wiggle room when a letter of recommender might not be a perfect fit with what they asked.
Help Your Writer
As a former college teacher, I’ve written letters for dozens of students. My husband, a current college professor, gets asked every term by multiple students. It can be a burden to be asked, not because you don’t have anything nice to say about the student, but because the student hasn’t given you any parameters. Never assume that the person you’re asking will know which qualities or character traits to emphasize. You HAVE TO TELL THEM EXACTLY WHAT YOU NEED the letter to represent, and your request should never only be verbal. Always ask in writing so they can refer back to it later when preparing the letter for you.
Example: Your teen babysits for a neighbor
The ask: “I need a letter of recommendation that speaks to my character. Since I’ve always been on time, friendly to your children, and responsive to them, do you think you could speak to my character?”
Example: Your teen gives piano lessons to a neighbor
The ask: “I need a letter of recommendation that speaks to my potential as a future teacher. Since I’ve taught lessons to your son’s class for the past 6 months and I think he has really responded well to my instruction, do you think you could write a letter for me that speaks to that?”
Start a File
Collect letters of recommendation anytime your teen impressed someone. Whether it was the decoration committee for a fall festival or writing an article for the neighborhood newsletter. Opportunities are everywhere! You can hang onto these letters and use them later. When the time comes, if you still have contact with that person, revisit and ask for an update. “Thank you so much for writing the letter of recommendation for me last year. I really appreciate all the kind things you’ve said and I know that if I can use it in my college application this year that it will help me get admitted. If it’s not too much trouble, would you mind updating the date so I can submit it in my college application this year? I have attached it back to this email, but I can make that change if you prefer.”
Having alternatives in place is a great “plan B” but moving forward, try and think about what kinds of requests will be made of your teen in the future. If you know they will need letters of recommendation from teachers, you can intentionally choose to enroll your teen in one or more dual enrollment courses on campus. If dual enrollment options aren’t available, use the community college’s continuing education catalog as a chance to take courses in an area of interest.
Letters of recommendation are unsettling because we don’t always know what people think of us, and most people fear that they don’t measure up or have made the kind of impression they want. I think that asking for letters of recommendation is a good way for your teen to develop self-awareness on another level, and allows them to evaluate their own contributions in a measured way. Even if they don’t need a letter of recommendation today, have them ask for one anyway. Asking for something you need in a professional way is a great skill to master and hearing good things about yourself from other people is always a nice feeling.
“In the age of social media, many students approach emailing similar to texting and other forms of digital communication, where the crucial conventions are brevity and informality. But most college teachers consider emails closer to letters than to text messages. This style of writing calls for more formality.” -Paul T. Corrigan and Cameron Hunt McNabb