College recommendation letters: What you need to know
With the first week of the school calendar in the rear-view mirror, teachers and students alike are still adjusting to the return of their alarm clock’s discordant daily greeting, hurried breakfasts, and long, regimented days. Soliciting college recommendation letters might be the furthest thing from anyone’s mind which is exactly why it is an ideal time to place them at the forefront of yours. In a couple of months, your favorite teachers (who are likely just about everyone’s favorite teacher) will be inundated with recommendation requests and will find themselves writing the phrase “It is with great pleasure” until carpal tunnel sets in.
On average, college applicants tend to underestimate the importance of recommendation letters, but they shouldn’t. According to a recent NACAC survey, over 15% of institutions view recommendations as “highly important” in admissions decisions and another 43% schools grant them “moderately important” status. In fact, the recommendation letter is often assigned as much importance as your application essays or extracurricular participation.
Why are they so important?
Letters of recommendation provide context to your application in a way that other credentials cannot. Ideally, a letter of recommendation will further reinforce your strengths as an applicant and reveal positive information not found elsewhere in your application. All other things being equal, a strong letter of recommendation may provide an admissions officer the additional piece of information he or she needs to admit you over other comparable applicants.
When should I ask?
Request early. When soliciting letters of recommendation, it is important that you submit your requests early, so that your teachers and counselors have ample time to write a well-thought and detailed narrative of your past contributions and potential as a college student.
Who should I ask?
Stay recent. You should request recommendations from those who have taught, mentored, or counseled you within the past two years. Admissions officers want insight into your most recent performance as a high school student, since this is often a good indicator of how you will perform in college.
Stay relevant. Be sure to pursue at least one letter of recommendation from a teacher in your area(s) of academic interest (if you have one). For example, if you indicate on your application that you plan to major in engineering, ask a science and/or math teacher to write on your behalf. Admissions officers always appreciate the opportunity to read letters that attest to your abilities in your prospective major. If you’re undecided on a major (as many students are), consider an English or math teacher—knowledge and skills developed in these academic areas are essential to success in any postsecondary field.
What is required of me?
Give adequate information. Immediately after making your requests, provide all (willing) writers with a resume and a statement of purpose outlining your academic and other-college related goals. Both will enable your recommenders to offer a more comprehensive account of what you bring (i.e., can contribute) to your prospective schools.
Should I send more letters than requested?
Don’t go overboard. If a college requires two letters of recommendation, submit no more than three. Admissions officers are charged with wading through an enormous amount of information, so too many recommendations may overwhelm or even annoy your reader. Worse yet, it could send signals of potential desperation and/or insecurity. If you wish to submit an additional recommendation, you may ask a coach, band director, employer, or other extracurricular sponsor with whom you have established a meaningful and productive relationship. Never ask a parent or other relative to write on your behalf. These people are rarely able to provide an objective, unbiased account of your character and abilities.
A licensed counselor and published researcher, Andrew’s experience in the field of college admissions and transition spans more than one decade. He has previously served as a high school counselor, consultant and author for Kaplan Test Prep, and advisor to U.S. Congress, reporting on issues related to college admissions and financial aid.