Guide to College Application Recommendation Letters
Most colleges will require recommendation letters as part of the admissions process, but why do they matter? For many students, recommendations can be an afterthought as it’s one part of the application they don’t actually have to write, but neglecting this important application component can hurt your applicant profile.
According to NACAC, 85.5% of colleges place some level of importance on recommendation letters when evaluating applications, so it’s important to understand what they are and how they can impact your chances of admission.
Here’s our guide to college admissions, giving students what they need to know about college recommendation letters as they apply to college this fall.
Why Colleges Request Recommendation Letters
Context is an important element that admissions officers look for when evaluating college applications. Context, while often an abstract component, can be found in various application elements – most notably in recommendation letters. Recommendations are one of the “soft factors” that contribute to the holistic review process and are just as important as other application elements.
Yes, your application shows you made good grades and took hard classes, but how did you get those grades? Did you participate in class discussions? Were you on time, engaged, and thoughtful in the classroom? Teacher recommendation letters provide that extra context that colleges are looking for. The same applies to counselor recommendations. How did you contribute to the campus community? Were you a leader? Did you make an impact in other ways? These are all things that be enlightening to admissions officers. A stellar recommendation alone won’t guarantee you admission to your top-choice schools, but it can help admissions officers better advocate for qualified students when making decisions.
Who to Approach for Recommendations
Most colleges and universities will require two recommendation letters, one from a teacher and one from your college counselor. It’s important to select a teacher who knows you well and that, ideally, teaches a course related to your core interests. For example, if you’re interested in pursuing a STEM major, your calculus or physics teacher would be a better choice than your art or history instructor. It’s even better if it’s an instructor that you’ve had for multiple courses, as you will have had time to develop a relationship. They can provide insight into how you’ve grown over the years as they’ve spent the most time with you inside of the classroom.
This is also why it’s important to meet your college counselor early and often, as they will also have to write a recommendation. College counselors will have to write possibly hundreds of recommendations, so it can be hard for them to write a compelling letter if they’re just meeting you for the first time your junior or senior year. Work to establish a relationship with your college counselor and provide any materials they may need in the recommendation process, like a resume or samples of any work.
How Many Recommendation Letters to Submit to Colleges
As we said earlier, most colleges and universities will require two recommendation letters, one from a teacher and one from your college counselor. Often times students will want to submit additional recommendations, possibly from a coach, mentor, internship supervisor, or some other person who has been a part of their college admissions journey. However, students shouldn’t do this if the schools to which they are applying specifically ask them not to. Often this creates more work for the admissions officers and can send up a red flag if you didn’t follow the explicit application instructions.
Other Recommendation Letter Tips and Resources
Here are some additional resources for help with your college recommendation letters!
- College Recommendation Letters: Where to Start
- The Truth About Recommendation Letters
- Selecting Teachers to Write Letters of Recommendation
- Students: Tips for Cultivating Teacher Relationships
- College Recommendation Letter Tips from Freshman to Senior Year
- How College Applications Are Evaluated: The Soft Factors
College recommendation letters are important, so don’t wait until the last minute to prepare. Work to cultivate teacher and counselor relationships throughout high school, be an engaged and impactful student, and follow directions when submitting additional recommendations from people other than counselors and teachers.
Want to ensure you’re on track with your college prep, including recommendations? Download our free College Planning Checklist for a year-by-year breakdown of what you need to do in order to stay ahead.