The Importance of Letters of Recommendation in College Admissions

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There are so many components to track when assembling college applications that letters of recommendation can often be overlooked since they’re the one part of your application that you – the student – aren’t writing. But don’t be fooled – letters of recommendation play a key role in admissions decisions and provide you with an opportunity to have another person share how talented and fabulous you are. Let’s take a deeper look at letters of recommendation and how you can best leverage them to optimize your college applications.

Schools Love Them

Think about your college application as a puzzle. GPA, AP scores, extracurricular activities… everything you’ve done for nearly four years lays the foundation for your application (or those big anchor images of your puzzle). Add your essays and that creates relationships between those anchors and gives the reader a glimpse into your motivations, passions and potential for future growth and success.

  • Why did you decide to establish an economics club AND play varsity soccer?
  • What drove you to coach kids’ swimming at your local rec center when you could have pursued a design internship?

The letters of recommendation from adults who know you best provide additional perspective and data points to validate much of what you’re likely sharing in your essays (hint hint). Further, they give universities an opportunity to get a measured (albeit subjective) ranking of how you stack up against other students.

If you stumbled on your first biology final, but sought additional help and demonstrated a resilience that a teacher has only seen twice in 20 years, that tells an admissions officer something.

If your soccer team votes you as team captain, but your coach can attest that it’s not because you’re the leading scorer but because you go out of your way to work 1:1 with underclassmen to improve their fundamentals, that tells an admissions officer something.

So think of those letters as additional puzzle pieces that bring the image into clearer focus (and might create some new linkages between parts of your story and personality that may not have previously been addressed in your application).

Planning: Who Should Write Your Letters?

Letters should come from individuals who know you well and ideally, more recently in your high school career. For academics, think of teachers you’ve had your junior year and know you in multiple contexts. Perhaps they taught AP US History and served as the faculty sponsor for National Honor Society which you lead. Also, think about aligning your collegiate interests with your faculty selections. If you’re planning to major in computer science, chances are you’ll need a letter from a STEM teacher. 

If you’re trying to think of teachers who know you well and are drawing a blank, you still have time to build authentic relationships. If you’re learning virtually, try to connect with your teachers outside of class via office hours or consider joining a club where you might have an opportunity for additional engagement with them. 

While teachers are typically the go-to for letters, there are other non-academic options that you can pursue as well. If you’re an athlete, a coach will speak to your soft skills such as leadership and resilience as well as your ability to work well on a team or receive constructive feedback. Pastors or rabbis (or religious leaders) could be appropriate if you are involved in your religious community or a leader at an outside organization where you volunteer or work. 

Lastly, have some back-ups prepared. You may receive a no for a variety of reasons, so if your top choice declines, be gracious and prepared with additional options.

Making the Ask

You don’t need to ask most letter writers until early fall of your senior year with a few exceptions.

  • If you know that you’re applying early action or decision to a school or if you have your heart set on a particular teacher who is extremely popular with students, you may consider letting them know in spring of your junior year about your college application plans and ask if they’d be willing to write you a letter.

When you ask, make sure you’re clear in the ask and when the appropriate deadlines will be. Also, once they accept, it’s helpful to provide some guidance on what you would like them to include in the letter.

  • A copy of your resume (or activity sheet) is helpful so they can learn more about you (outside of the context in which they know you) and if there are specific examples that you feel would make for a compelling letter, consider including them in your guidance.

Letter writers are often very appreciative of this guidance, and it ensures that you’re sharing multiple data points and characteristics with a university admissions board. 

What Makes A Letter of Recommendation Stand Out?

Anecdotes. Compelling letters of recommendation should include more than a list of attributes about who you are. While it is wonderful for a teacher to say that you are a change-maker, or motivated, or well-liked among your peers, all of that will fall on deaf ears without anecdotes and specific examples.

Including a resume or summary of key experiences that demonstrate your core characteristics is essential in ensuring your writer has everything they need to support their statements about you with memorable stories. In the end, your application is a collection of stories that tell your reader about who you are, and the type of student you would be on their college campus. It’s imperative that these letters of recommendation follow that same pattern of story-telling, too.

Above all, start planning early and don’t wait too long to strategize about your letters of recommendation. They are a crucial piece of your application and some advance planning can absolutely pay dividends in strengthening your overall application and giving schools a much more holistic and comprehensive view of who you are as a student and community member.

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