Complete Guide to Harvard Letters of Recommendation

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Complete Guide to Harvard Letters of Recommendation

With an acceptance rate that has dipped below 5% in recent years, there’s no doubt that getting into Harvard is exceptionally competitive. As a result, students who are interested in gaining admission to the top-tier institution need to understand that every component of their application matters, including the recommendation letters they submit.

To make sure your letter of recommendation for Harvard is strong, you need to understand exactly what admissions officers will be looking for and the role this document will play in your application process. Keep reading for a breakdown of everything that you’ll need to know to submit a Harvard letter of recommendation that will help set you apart for all of the right reasons.

How Important Are Recommendation Letters in Harvard Admissions?

Before you start working on your Harvard letter of recommendation, it’s important to understand the weight these documents will carry. Like most colleges, Harvard reviews a variety of hard factors (like grades and GPA) and soft factors (such as essays and extracurricular activities) when making their admissions decisions.

Letters of recommendation are a valuable soft factor. In the National Association of College Admissions Counselors’ State of College Admissions Report, more than 40% of college admissions officers surveyed noted that letters of recommendation carry “moderate importance”, with another approximately 15% classifying them as a factor with “considerable importance” to the college admissions process at large.

At a school like Harvard where there are so many qualified students competing for relatively few seats, every factor can move the needle in determining your admissions outcome, so recommendations are especially important.

What’s the Purpose of Harvard Letters of Recommendation?

Recommendations are a key component of the application process. They give admissions officers some context into a student’s academic performance and help them create a fuller picture of the applicant. A letter of recommendation for students with low grades may help the admissions office see beyond a subpar semester or even prevent that student from being placed on the Harvard waitlist, however, applicants who want to be competitive at Harvard will generally need to demonstrate top-tier academic achievements.

How long should a letter of recommendation be?

There isn’t a specific word count that will dictate how long your Harvard letter of recommendation needs to be. The quality of what your teachers and counselors write will ultimately matter much more than the quantity. However, most letters are generally between two-thirds of a page and a full-page long, or approximately 300-600 words.

How Many Recommendation Letters Does Harvard Require?

On their website, Harvard specifically asks for letters of recommendation from two teachers in different academic subjects. Students can submit additional letters of recommendation if they wish. The University also requires one letter of recommendation from a school counselor.

Who Should Write Your Letters of Recommendation for Harvard?

While you might not have much choice when it comes to who will write your school counselor recommendation, choosing the teachers to ask for a letter from is a big decision.

For your Harvard letter of recommendation, you’re going to want to ask teachers who have worked closely with you and who knows your strengths inside and out. Ideally, we recommend eleventh-grade instructors because they will know how you perform in higher-level courses and will have more recent memories of your work inside the classroom.

When asking for letters of recommendation from teachers, students might also wish to prioritize those who focus on a subject that they are passionate about and might be interested in pursuing in college. For example, a student who is considering majoring in journalism might want to think about asking one of their English teachers for a letter of recommendation.

What Makes a Great Letter of Recommendation for Harvard?

Given how selective Harvard is and the important role letters of recommendation play in the admissions process, every student will want to know what it takes to get a great letter. Ultimately, the best letters are personalized, showcase a student’s unique character, and come from teachers with a genuine connection to the applicant. A few general tips include:

Use of Anecdotes

Hopefully, the teachers you ask to write your letters will be very familiar with your classroom performance. The strongest letters follow the “show, don’t tell” rule by using real-life examples that demonstrate the kind of impact a student will make, versus relying on vague adjectives and filler words. Anecdotes are powerful, which is why it’s often beneficial to send your letter writers a copy of your resume and some talking points, so they have something to work off of.

Highlight a Specific Commitment or Unusual Skill

Your Harvard letter of recommendation should showcase exactly what kind of student you are and where your passions lie. Admissions officers are looking for applicants with a demonstrated commitment to a specific field, so your recommendation letters should ideally reflect these interests and highlight the fields you’re most passionate about pursuing.

Being Well-Organized and Structured

Admissions officers review hundreds of letters during application season, so it’s important to make sure the text you submit is easy to follow so they can pull key takeaways, even from just a quick read. Since every writer has their own voice and style, there’s no singular format that documents must follow. However, if you’re looking for a generalized outline, this sample MBA recommendation letter is an example of a well-structured piece.

What Can You Do to Get Strong Letters of Recommendation?

What do the best letters of recommendation for college applicants have in common? They come from passionate teachers who developed strong relationships with the student they are writing on behalf of and they were given plenty of time to compose a thoughtful letter. We recommend asking teachers before the start of your senior year and including a few notes about the experiences that you’re particularly proud of to give them a foundation and set the writer up for success.

What If You Don’t Have Teachers or a Counselor Who Knows You Well?

If you are worried that a teacher or counselor doesn’t know you as well as you had hoped, it’s particularly important to give them a few notes and a copy of your resume so they can write something more personalized. You can also include a supplemental letter from someone who knows you much better, such as a supervisor, coach, or religious leader, to help round out your application.

How to Ensure that You Get Great Harvard Recommendation Letters?

Since letters are sealed or submitted by the recommender, students won’t have the chance for a final review of their Harvard letters of recommendation. So how can you set yourself up for success?

Start by carefully selecting teachers with who you’ve built a strong rapport with and make sure you give them plenty of time to compile their letters. Be polite and help them out by sharing your resume and talking points. Make sure you behave graciously and take ownership of any projects or responsibilities, but avoid going out of your way to show your strengths right before your application because this might feel a little forced.  Ultimately, the relationship with teachers you have built and the performance in the classroom will speak for itself.

How to Send Your Harvard Recommendation Letters?

What’s next after your teachers have finished writing your letters? If you’re using the Common Application to apply to Harvard, your letters will be submitted electronically through their school-specific supplements section.

Students who choose to submit via the Coalition Application will follow a similar process by submitting electronically through the Official Documents section of the portal.

While you may be curious to see what the teachers you have asked have chosen to write, students should avoid requesting to see the letters before they are submitted. Doing so puts the teacher in an awkward position and it might even hinder their honesty and thoughtfulness.

If you’re so worried that you feel compelled to ask your letter writers to see what they’ve written before they submit, it might be a sign that you haven’t built a strong and trusting relationship with those teachers. In that case, you would be better off asking another instructor and choosing someone who you feel more confident will write an essay that presents you in the best light possible.

While asking for letters of recommendation can feel a little scary at first, it’s an opportunity to solidify your relationship with the teachers that have seen you grow and know what you’re capable of achieving. Now that you know all about the Harvard letters of recommendation, consider getting familiar with the details of how to get into Harvard, including how to nail the Harvard admissions interview, so that you can ace your application and hopefully earn a seat at this competitive institution.


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