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College Recommendation Letter FAQ: Ask An Admissions Officer

Admissions Tips College FAQs 9 min read
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In the following article, admissions officer Blair Betts answers frequently asked questions about the college recommendation letter! For more guidance on how to get a great recommendation letter and the college application process in general, sign up for a monthly plan to work with an admissions coach 1-on-1.


What is a college recommendation letter?

A college recommendation letter is exactly as it sounds. It’s an opportunity for those who know you in an educational setting to detail to an admissions committee the ways in which you have contributed to your communities and highlight why you would be a good candidate for college admission.

How long should my college recommendation letter be?

The standard length of a college letter of recommendation is one page.

Why is a college recommendation letter important?

Not all colleges will require letters of recommendation, but the majority do, so it’s generally advised to secure them. It’s impossible to weigh the role letters of recommendation play in the overall admissions process, as it will vary by school. According to a 2018 article by Inside Higher Ed, “15 percent of colleges report that the counselor recommendation has ‘considerable importance,’ while 46 percent say these letters have ‘moderate importance.’” While the article delves into the fairness and validity of letters of recommendation, one thing is for certain: they will continue to be used. I would even argue that with standardized testing taking a back seat and some high schools resorting to pass/fail grades due to COVID-19, letters of recommendation may matter even more in the admissions process, especially at more selective schools.

A few scenarios can play out when letters of recommendation could be a deciding factor in an admission decision. At highly selective schools, where each required component of the application process counts, this may very well be the case. Let’s say for instance the admissions committee is deciding between two candidates with a similar profile in terms of major, extracurricular involvement, test scores (if applicable), GPA, and curriculum - the stronger letter of recommendation just may be the deciding factor.

In a second scenario, let’s take a less selective school with a truly holistic admissions process. A candidate might seem like an average student, but a strong letter of recommendation may make admission officers want to take a chance on that candidate.

Lastly, a common scenario at selective schools is one in which a candidate may be on the cusp. Academically, they aren’t strong enough for a definite offer of admission, so the decision can go either way. That’s when letters of recommendation and essays can really make all the difference. A strong combination of the two can provide that boost needed to settle on a decision to admit.

At the end of the day, while required letters of recommendation aren’t the end-all be-all in the college application process, they can play an important role in the final decision. That said, it’s best to ensure your letters are as strong as possible.

When should I ask for a college recommendation letter?

I cannot stress enough the importance of respecting your teachers’ time. While you should ask four weeks in advance at minimum, I advise asking in May before the end of the school year. Many teachers will take advantage of their free time during the summer to write college recommendation letters, so the earlier the better. You don’t want to be the student asking your teachers just days before the application deadline: your teachers have enough to juggle. Ask your teachers in person if possible, and understand that they reserve the right to decline.

Where should I get my college recommendation letters from?

The majority of selective schools will require that applicants submit two letters of recommendation from teachers. I typically recommend that students ask one teacher in the math and sciences and one in the humanities in order to provide a well-rounded perspective. However, that may not work for all students. If that is the case, move forward with the teachers you have the best relationships with. You want teachers who can attest to your character and academic strengths.

Typically, your college or school counselor will also submit a recommendation. This letter will typically provide an overview of your years as a high school. It will discuss your academics, extracurricular involvement and impact, as well as your personal traits and growth throughout the years. For that reason, even if you do work with an outside advisor (such as one of CollegeAdvisor.com’s advisors), it is important to form a relationship with your school-assigned counselor. Their letters can help fill in gaps in your application story by providing contextual information. For example, if your GPA suffered your sophomore due to your parents’/guardians’ divorce or separation, or a death in the family occurred, your counselor can include that information. For some information, such as medical conditions, your counselor will require written consent to include said information in your letter.

Some colleges and universities will allow you to submit supplemental letters of recommendation. The amount will vary by school, but one is typically enough. This letter could come from a coach, supervisor, religious leaders, community leader, research advisor, debate coach, band teacher, etc. You will want the person writing your supplemental letter to provide a unique perspective different from your other letters. A word of caution: be sure to check the individual college’s policy on the submission of supplemental letters. Not all schools welcome them, so do not have them sent if they specify that they are not wanted.

Who should write my college recommendation letter?

Deciding who should write your letters of recommendation requires careful consideration. It sounds a bit transactional, but you should take inventory of your teachers early in your junior year. The college application process requires planning, so you need to assess every step of the way. Do you already know what particular school, major, or program you will be applying to? If so, you will certainly want to ask a teacher in the appropriate subject. If two letters are required, I generally suggest one recommendation from a math or science teacher and another from a humanities teacher.

Junior year teachers are ideal because they are the last ones to have taught you for a full year before the application process, and your classes are more rigorous. If you are lucky enough to have a junior year teacher that you had in previous years, that could certainly prove advantageous. Either way, make sure to forge relationships with your teachers throughout your junior year. Let them know your interests, go to see them during their office hours, and participate in class discussions.

Do you have the opportunity to work with one of your teachers outside of your class? Perhaps your history teacher advises the volunteer services club, or your calculus teacher advises the Black Student Association. If you’re not already involved, it would not be a bad idea to join the clubs your teachers advise so they can get to know you better outside of the classroom. Of course, these should be activities that you’re genuinely interested in.

Can a college recommendation letter be from a family member?

No. A family member cannot write a letter of recommendation on your behalf.

Can a college recommendation letter be signed?

Your letter of recommendation should be signed by the recommender.

I'm a freshman/sophomore/junior. What can I do to ensure a good college recommendation letter?

The best thing to do to ensure a good letter of recommendation is to form relationships with your teachers. You can accomplish this by coming to class prepared so that you can answer questions and also ask questions. That said, you will want to make sure you consistently complete your homework and class assignments on time. You can set yourself apart by contributing to class discussions, respecting your peers, and getting along with your teachers. You can also show leadership by volunteering to help out in class and take the lead on group projects. You’ll want to identify teachers you trust and can ask for help in order to build relationships with your teachers. You’ll also want to get to know your teachers and allow them to get to know you.

What should a college recommendation letter include?

A strong letter of recommendation will provide key details that are not obvious from the rest of your application. While you may have a strong academic profile, a letter can provide contextual information such as your journey in that particular class, insight into how you think, how you treat your classmates, your relationship with your teacher, and how you contribute to the class. That’s information that a simple letter grade cannot provide.

And speaking of grades, you don’t have to ask teachers whose classes you earned an A in to write your letters. Sometimes the strongest letters can come from teachers whose class you didn’t ace — that’s not always the end result of hard work, after all. A strong letter can attest to the commitment you made to do well, whether it was meeting the teacher outside of class, seeing a tutor, or asking for additional resources to better grasp the material. What admissions committee wouldn’t appreciate a teacher speaking to your resilience and dedicated work ethic? They aren’t looking for perfection, but they are looking to form the ideal class of students who can thrive academically.

How should I go about asking for a college recommendation letter?

If possible, ask your potential recommenders in person or ask to set up a meeting online. Understand that your teachers have the right to decline your request to have them write a letter of recommendation.

By when do teachers have to submit recommendation letters? Can they be late?

If you are applying to schools with a November deadline, your teachers and counselor will generally submit your letters by then. Likewise for applications with a January deadline.

Yes, letters of recommendation can generally come in after the deadline, within reason of course. Sometimes your college counselor will continue to submit information on your behalf throughout the cycle if necessary. What matters is that your application is submitted by the deadline. For schools with rolling admissions, your application will not be reviewed until it is complete.

To whom should my teacher address their recommendation letter?

Your letters of recommendation can simply be addressed “To whom it may concern,” as they are not written for specific colleges.

Will I be able to read my college recommendation letter?

Your teachers will typically submit your letter of recommendation to your school counselor. From there, it gets uploaded to whichever platform your school uses such as Naviance or MaiaLearning, from which your counselor will submit your supporting documents to the colleges you’ve selected.

Typically, students must sign a FERPA waiver stating that you waive the right to view your recommendation letter.

How do I know if my college recommendation letter is good?

The quality of recommendation letters can vary depending on the teachers writing them. Not all teachers are wordsmiths, and that’s ok. What matters most is the content, which is why it’s important to forge those teacher connections and choose recommenders who know you and your abilities best. If a teacher feels that they would not be the best person to write a solid recommendation on your behalf, they may decline your offer.


This informational article was written by CollegeAdvisor.com Admissions Expert and Admissions Officer Blair Betts. Didn’t see your question on the list? Get help writing your college essay from Blair or other CollegeAdvisor.com Admissions Experts, register with CollegeAdvisor.com today.

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