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The Truth About Recommendation Letters

Grades and test scores are important factors when evaluating college applications, but they don’t tell the whole story. When admissions officers evaluate applicants, they review both “hard factors” (quantitative measures like GPA) as well as “soft factors,” such as essays, extracurricular activities, demonstrated interest, and recommendation letters.

What role do letters of recommendation play during the college admissions process? They help round out your applicant profile, provide insights into what you are like as a student and person, and put the rest of your application in context. Letters of recommendation are particularly valuable to admissions officers because the experiences that high school counselors and teachers describe can help them paint a better overall picture of who you are and the impact you will have on campus.

Most selective colleges and universities require one to three recommendation letters with your application, usually from your guidance counselor and at least one teacher. Recommendation letters are typically submitted electronically through the school-specific supplements on The Common Application. It’s important to be strategic about who you choose to write your recommendation letters since there is usually a limit on how many you can submit on the Common App.

Whom to Ask for College Recommendation Letters

It’s never too early to think about recommendation letters. Build and foster relationships with teachers and counselors from day one so that you not only get the most out of your classes but also have people who can advocate on your behalf when it comes time to apply to colleges.

At IvyWise, we recommend students identify whom they would like to write recommendation letters before the end of junior year. Junior year teachers or senior year teachers are usually the best for writing recommendations, since they are more likely to have taught you in a high-level course, taught you over a few years, and/or know you in different capacities.

It can also be beneficial to prioritize getting a recommendation letter from a teacher in the subject that is relevant to the course of study you intend to pursue. For example, if you plan to apply to college as an engineering major, a letter from your physics teacher might hold more weight than one from your English teacher.

When to Ask for College Recommendation Letters

Don’t wait until the last minute to reach out to teachers and counselors to ask if they will write on your behalf. Instead, it’s best to start the conversation about recommendation letters early by getting in touch with the teachers you choose during the end of your junior year or the very beginning of your senior year. This will give them ample time to plan and draft a thoughtful and comprehensive letter that they can submit well before your application deadlines. Provide your teacher with proper instructions and any other materials they may need to reference, such as your resume or a great assignment you completed in their class.

Some schools place limits on how many recommendations teachers or counselors may write, which is why it is so important to approach them early to ensure they are able to write a letter for you. You can assume that popular instructors will have a lot of students asking for recommendations. If you wait too long, they may not have time to write a compelling letter for you.

Other College Recommendation Letter Tips:

  • Avoid recommendation letters from well-known or influential people who don’t know you well or personally. Having someone write on your behalf just because they are “cool” or impressive doesn’t boost your application; it can actually hurt it. It’s better to have recommendations from people who know you very well and can expand on your academic and extracurricular strengths.
  • Don’t ask to see the recommendation letter before it’s submitted or ask what a person wrote after its submission. This puts the writer in an awkward position and could potentially hinder their honesty and thoughtfulness. If you are that worried about what a teacher may have to say, you probably shouldn’t be asking that teacher for a recommendation in the first place.
  • If a school advises you not to submit additional letters of recommendation, then don’t. You don’t want to give the admissions officers extra materials that are not requested and they will remember that you didn’t follow explicit instructions.
  • Don’t forget to say “thank you!” After your teachers have submitted their letters of recommendation, take some time to write out your own letter of gratitude. Let them know you appreciate that they took the time to write a recommendation for you. Remember, teachers are not required to do this.

While recommendation letters are just one of many application components, they are a unique and particularly critical part of completing a full personal and academic profile and require strategic planning. Be proactive and think about this early so that when the time comes, you will feel prepared and confident about asking for those letters. At IvyWise, we work with students on every facet of the college application, from activities and essays to guidance on how to select the best-fit teachers to write letters of recommendation. For more information on our college counseling services, contact us today!

For a more in-depth look at recommendation letters and what they add to your college application, be sure to check out additional resources in the IvyWise KnowledgeBase! And check out our deep dive into all you need to know for the Harvard letter of recommendation.

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