On average, college applicants tend to underestimate the importance of recommendation letters, but they shouldn’t. 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. A few points of advice:
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.
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.
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.
Don’t go overboard. If a college requires three letters of recommendation, submit no more than four. 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.
Say “thank you.” Sending a “thank you” letter to your recommenders may not improve your admissions prospects, but you should do it anyway, because it is the right thing to do. In most cases, your recommenders do not have to write letters on your behalf, but choose to anyway, because they care about you and want you to succeed. So, make sure to express your gratitude.
Dave has over a decade of professional experience that includes work as a teacher, high school administrator, college professor, and independent educational consultant. He is a co-author of the books The Enlightened College Applicant (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016) and Colleges Worth Your Money (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020).