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:

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:

But there's much more to it. When your student thinks about who to ask for a recommendation, consider:

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:

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:

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:

Asking for a Recommendation
Dear [teacher name],
Thank you so much for an amazing semester, I definitely feel like I learned a lot.
I am writing because I am currently in the process of applying for [SCHOOL NAME] and I was wondering if you would be willing to be one of my recommenders for my application.
I am asking you because your class is one of the reasons I’m interested in pursuing a [INSERT DEGREE] degree. [PERSONAL MESSAGE]
The due date for the recommendation is [DUE DATE]. It can be submitted through [SYSTEM WITH LINK].
I have attached my resume and transcript, as well as my personal statement for [COLLEGE]. Please let me know if there is anything else I can send that will help.
Thank you very much!
Please let me know,
[NAME]
Follow-up Email
Hi [TEACHER NAME],
Just wanted to check in about my recommendation for [COLLEGE]. It’s due [DUE DATE] and can be submitted through [SYSTEM NAME WITH LINK]!
Again, thank you so much for all of your help.
Best,
[NAME]
"Thank You" Email
Hi [TEACHER NAME],
I hope you’ve been well. Thank you so much for your help with the recommendation. [PERSONAL MESSAGE]
I’m looking forward to hearing back about the status of my application and I will keep you updated!
Best,
[NAME]

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:

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.

Chapter Five