Are College Recommendation Letters Important?
Recommendation letters help college admissions officers understand your student as a person, beyond the grades and test scores. Admissions officers read recommendations closely and seriously consider what teachers and counselors have to say. But why are these personal—and more subjective—accounts of your student so important?
What admissions officers look for in recommendations
Admissions Dean at Harvard College, William R. Fitzsimmons, stated in an interview with the New York Times that admissions counselors at Harvard and other colleges consider recommendation letters “extremely important.” He said,
Recommendations... can illuminate such personal qualities as character and leadership as well as intellectual curiosity, creativity, and love of learning.... [and] can offer evidence of an applicant’s potential to make a significant difference to a college community and beyond.
When admissions officers read your student's recommendation they want to understand how your student will contribute to the college community. Officers want to admit students who will bring a love of learning and enthusiasm for their passions, because these students will thrive and inspire others.
Recommendations also help admissions officers understand any hardships or difficulties that your student may have dealt with. These might include:
- Academic challenges, such as a class outside of your student's comfort zone
- Personal challenges, such a divorce or death in the family
A recommendation letter can give context to lower grades, because admissions officers understand that students sometimes encounter extenuating circumstances.
Recommendation letters will likely confirm what is already in your student's application. But they go beyond your student's self-advocacy and provide a valuable second perspective.
Who Should Your Student Ask for a Recommendation?
Most colleges will ask for a letter from your student's counselor and one or two teachers. Your student probably won't have a choice about which college counselor to ask, but it's up to them to ask teachers for recommendations. Your student's choice of teachers could make or break the holistic picture of their application.
We mention in our 2017 College Prep Calendar that your student should ask a teacher who:
- Has had a chance to interact with your student on a 1:1 basis. Your student and the teacher will have had discussions about your student's work and their academic interests.
- Has a good sense of your student's personality and work ethic. The teacher has seen your student work hard in the class and exhibit enthusiasm for their work.
- Has seen your student excel or overcome a challenge in their class. Teachers notice when a student does great work or significantly turns their grade around for the better.
But there's much more to it. When your student thinks about who to ask for a recommendation, consider:
- What subject did they teach your student? If your student is applying to a technical college or a STEM program, make sure at least one of their recommendation letters is from a science, math, or technology teacher. For a liberal arts college applications, your student should ask teachers from varied subjects to show mastery in different fields.
- How well do they know your student? Teachers that give your students the best grades don't necessarily make for the best recommenders. Larger or lecture-focused classes don't give students and teachers much chance to interact. Aim to ask teachers of smaller, discussion-style classes. In these classes, the teacher can get to know your student and can speak to their contributions as an intellectual and a learner, rather than just a test-taker.
- Did they see your student excel beyond the classroom? Some of your student's teachers may also be involved with your student's community service group, sports team, or special interest club. A teacher that sees a student excel in the classroom and foster their passions outside the classroom can speak to a well-rounded student and community member.
If your student doesn't have clear choices yet, encourage them to get to talk to their teachers more. The more a teacher knows about your student's goals, motivations, and interests, the better they can write a glowing recommendation. Above all, don't rush the decision. Take the time to figure out who knows your student well and can speak to many of their strengths.
How Should Your Student Ask for a Recommendation Letter?
Asking for a recommendation doesn't have to be intimidating—teachers and counselors write recommendation letters every year. But since your student probably isn't the only one asking for a letter, it's important to make it personal.
This starts by asking the teacher or counselor in person first. When your student first speaks to their teacher or counselor, they should:
- Express that they believe they've had a good experience and grown as a student in the class (when asking a teacher)
- Say where they are applying
- Clarify when they are applying
- Ask if the teacher or counselor feels comfortable writing a strong recommendation
If your teacher or counselor agrees, the next step is to provide them with materials they need to write—and send—a great letter. Your student should prepare some high points to remind the teacher or counselor of your student's best moments—the last thing you want is a generic form letter.
This information is sometimes called a brag sheet because it highlights your student's accomplishments and goals. This can include:
- Copies of your student's college essays
- Short explanations of why your student is applying to particular schools
- Your student's plans for their major and some ideas of future goals
- Notes about your student's participation in any organizations they supervise
- An essay or test where your student excelled
- A resume (optional)
If your student is asking a counselor, schedule a meeting to speak with them. Your student's counselor probably sees them through all four years of high school and may want to learn more about your student's trajectory through an informal conversation.
Your student should follow up with their teacher or counselor over email and make sure they receive a written confirmation. We've put together email templates for you to see what samples of what these emails look like:
It's also essential to provide a teacher or counselor with the information they need to successfully send in the letter on time. If the letter needs to be sent by mail, provide them with an addressed and stamped envelope. If the letter needs to be uploaded to the Common Application or through Naviance, provide them with these links and instructions. Clearly communicate the recommendation letter deadlines for each school. Always check what each school requires, because the method of sending and the deadline may vary by school.
When Should Your Student Ask for their Recommendations?
Making sure recommendation letters are submitted on time can be stressful because the process sometimes doesn't involve the student. Teachers are often required to submit the recommendation by mailing it in or sending through an official website. In either case, the student doesn't send the letter themselves.
Your student's recommendation timeline
Even if your student doesn't send the letter in, they can still help the process along. Here is a recommendation letter timeline to make sure your student gives teachers enough time to write their letters and send them in on time:
- 1. End of junior year: Your student should start thinking about who to ask for a recommendation letter. If your student already has solid choices in mind for teachers, ask them now. Some teachers only write a certain number of letters so asking early gives your student a better chance of getting their preferred recommenders. The teacher has also just worked with your student and their accomplishments are fresh in their mind. They have the whole summer to write the letter. If the teacher tells your student to ask again in the fall, make a note and follow up.
- 2. Beginning of senior year: If your student hasn't asked teachers yet, now is the time. Your student should ideally ask teachers they've had junior year, because these teachers have a chance to see your student's work over a whole year. As senior year progresses, you want to make sure that you ask a teacher for a recommendation letter at least one month before the deadline. You should ask a counselor at least two months before the deadline because they might be working with more students. Again, earlier is always better.
- 3. Two weeks before the deadline: Check to see when recommendation letters are due for each particular school. Recommendation letters are usually due the same time as the application itself, so make sure to check when your application is due. Then set a reminder to follow up with teachers and counselors two weeks before the application is due to check progress. This serves as a polite reminder to make sure the recommendation gets done on time but also gives the teacher enough time to start if they haven't yet.
- 4. After the recommendation is submitted: Make sure your child thanks each teacher and counselor who advocated for them! They've gone out of their way to help your student succeed, so even a simple thank you will show your appreciation for their hard work.
As your student is completing their college application, they'll be asked if they would like to waive their rights to view their letters of recommendation. Though legally students are permitted to read recommendations submitted on their behalf, we strongly suggest that you waive your rights to read the letters.
When admissions officers see that your student has waived these rights, they won't have any question about whether or not the recommender felt comfortable speaking candidly. This will strengthen the authority and value of your student's recommendations.
Your Recommendations Paint a Holistic Picture
As you've learned from our first few chapters, college admissions officers don't rely on one single factor to make their decisions. Recommendation letters help the admissions officers piece together everything in the application to get a holistic picture of your student.
That's why it's so important that your student chooses the right teachers and takes care to help their teachers and counselors write strong recommendations.
In the next chapter of the Ultimate College Prep Guide, we'll discuss one of the most crucial parts of the application — the essay. We'll first focus on the main Common Application essay because this goes out to all schools that use that application. We'll also discuss how to make sure your secondary applications help you stand out without repeating information from your main personal essay.