Early Action and Early Decision college application deadlines are right around the corner. As you gather your application materials—including personal statements, supplemental essays, transcripts, standardized test scores, and more—you may wonder how everything gets evaluated. After all, it’s easy to compare SAT scores or GPAs. But how do admission officers review more subjective aspects of the college application, like letters of recommendation? As with everything else you submit, it’s important to be strategic about who you ask for letters of recommendation and how many you send. Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about this important part of your applications.
1. How do colleges consider letters of recommendation?
The purpose of a college recommendation letter is to see if a student is portraying themselves authentically through their essays, activities, and interviews. According to Harvard University’s Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, William Fitzsimmons, "Recommendations can help us see well beyond test scores and grades and other credentials and can illuminate intellectual curiosity, creativity, and a love of learning." Submitting letters of recommendation from someone who knows you well gives a college an outsider's perspective and holistic view of your overall personality, goals, and application, which will hopefully increase your chances of getting into your dream school.
Ask the right people
At Moon Prep, we typically recommend students ask for letters from two junior year teachers with whom you have good relationships. Your teachers from 11th grade will know you best and have seen you tackle higher-level material. It might also be a good idea to ask someone related to the academic path you want to pursue in college. Think about who you’re asking, your relationship with them, and what unique aspects they can add to your recommendations. Some students think asking an influential person—perhaps from a well-known university, business, or organization—will help them get into a particular school. However, if that person doesn’t know you well, the letter will not improve your candidacy and could even hurt you. It's better to have recommendations from people who know you well and can speak personally about your accomplishments and positive traits.
Ask at the right time
Students should connect with their preferred teachers at the end of their junior year to ask if they’d be willing to write a letter. Some schools limit the number of letters a particular teacher can write, so ask early to ensure you aren't disappointed to find they already have too many requests. This way, it also gives them plenty of time to write a thoughtful letter detailing your accomplishments and qualities. They’ll have the summer to ruminate on it, but be sure to reach out via email or visit and remind them as your deadlines draw closer.
2. Is sending more letters of recommendation better?
Many selective colleges will require students to submit up to three letters of recommendation. Who these letters are from can vary, but schools typically want one from your counselor and two teachers. Depending on the college, you could also submit letters from people outside of school, like research mentors, job managers, coaches, etc. As you create your college list, see what each school requires. Some schools will let you send upwards of five letters, and sending the maximum is always better—as long as the writers know you well and can speak to your character and goals. If a school says no more than three letters, do not try to submit more than three; admission officers will take note of whether you follow directions or not.
In the world of college admission, a great letter of recommendation can be the secret weapon to getting accepted to your school of choice. Like an outstanding essay, they help colleges see what makes you special and why you’d be a great addition to campus. When asking for recommendation letters, remember that it’s better to have a few great letters from people who know you well than a bunch from near strangers. Just give them enough time to write a great recommendation—the rest is up to them.
While your counselors and teachers are working on your letters, make sure the rest of your materials are in order with this advice on How to Build the Perfect College Application.