Recommendation letters might not seem like a very crucial part of your whole college application, but they say something about you that a school might not be able to get from your own essays, grades or extracurricular background. After all, your teachers and mentors are in the special position to have been able to observe and work with you throughout your fundamental years leading up to college.
We reached out to some experts, including Kelly Sutton-Skinner, Associate Director of Admissions at Barnard College of Columbia University, Dr. Bari Norman, President of Expert Admissions, an admissions advisory firm in Manhattan and Anna Ivey, founder of Ivey Consulting and CEO of inli.ne for some insider advice on what makes a letter of recommendation stand out, how to choose who writes yours and where it falls among the other features of your application. Some well-versed collegiettes also gave us some perspective on who and how to ask for recommendation letters. Read on and you’ll be a pro in no time!
Why they matter
You might be wondering where exactly your letters of recommendation rank among all of the other materials you’re required to provide a college with when you’re applying. While this depends, to a degree, on the given school you’re looking at, you shouldn’t ever overlook the importance of a rec letter. “If a college requires recommendation letters, then those letters really do matter,” Ivey says. They’re not asking for recommendation letters for no reason!
“A student's application has to speak for itself first,” Norman says. “But, an excellent recommendation that focuses on things relevant to the admissions review process and truly makes you stand out...can absolutely make the difference.”
While it’s unlikely your letters of recommendation will introduce entirely new facets of your personality or paint a completely different picture, your teachers and mentors have a perspective on you that an admissions officer can’t get any other way. “Teachers...are exposed to so many different factors of a student,” Sutton-Skinner says. “We’re not only learning about a student’s intellect and how they engage with academic content, but we’re also learning about their personalities and...what kind of presence they are in an academic environment.”
She continues, “We would have an incomplete understanding of the student without them.” Schools ask for recommendation letters because they want to see a part of you that the rest of your application might not illustrate, so make them count! Choose who writes your letters carefully—it’s not as simple as teachers who love you or have given you good grades!
Who you select to write them is essential
Don’t just jump to the teacher who gave you your highest grades in high school, though this probably seems like what a college would want to hear about. Think about your relationship with the person you’re interested in asking, as well as their ability to communicate your best attributes to a school.
“Teacher recommendations, in particular, should focus on you as a thinker and as a student in the classroom,” Norman says—and this will likely include the times you struggled! “If a teacher can speak about intellectual growth or savviness on your part, seriously consider asking that teacher, even if the grade you earned wasn't the highest on your report card.”
“When things come very easily to a student, there's not too much a teacher can say, other than that the student is an excellent student,” Norman adds. Consider choosing a teacher you may have had some difficulties with or who taught a class you didn’t do your best in, but you saw personal or intellectual growth by the end. “If there is something negative in your profile on the academic side, you might also ask someone who can speak positively to your improvement,” Ivey says.
Sutton-Skinner agrees. “Some students will have better relationships with teachers who maybe haven’t given them an A,” she says. Of course, don’t pick someone you have a bad relationship with (they probably wouldn’t say yes to you anyway), but there could be a lot to gain from a letter written by a teacher was exposed to some of your academic stumbling blocks and knows how hard you worked to deal with them.
"I chose teachers who had seen my weaknesses...because with them, I grew and made improvements," says Grace Moon, a sophomore at New York University. "There's more to write about when you have a story to tell." Your personal growth throughout high school is really indicative to a college in terms of how you will do in their program.
You obviously can’t write the letter for your chosen teacher or mentor, but there’s no harm in helping them out—especially if you haven’t been in touch with them or had a class with them in some time. “Sometimes [rec writers] will ask students to actually fill out sort of a cheat sheet, answer specific questions about their favorite part of the class [or tell them about] the kinds of schools that they’re applying to,” Sutton-Skinner says. You don’t want the letter to come out super cookie-cutter and vague, even if it’s complimentary.
“You should give [teachers or mentors] your resume so they have an idea of what you do outside of school and can include that in your recommendation,” says Shereen Jeyakumar, a sophomore at Florida Atlantic University. This will help your writer paint as full a picture of you as possible.
What makes a letter stand out
Recommendation letters shouldn’t simply talk up your accomplishments or vaguely list that one paper you wrote on The Great Gatsby and how well you contemplated the transcendence of 1920s idealism. After all, this is about you!
A good recommendation letter should be able to communicate what kind of person and thinker you are from the perspective of someone who has been able to see how you operate in an academic or other setting. “We are really trying to get a sense of your mind and the kind of community member that you would be,” Sutton-Skinner says.
“I chose to ask my varsity coach, who I greatly admired,” says Autumn Dube, a senior at Emmanuel College. “They’ll talk about your role on the team as well as your individual efforts and dedication rather than just school skills.” A school might require an academic recommendation letter, but if you have the opportunity to send supplemental letters, consider branching out!
Going the nontraditional recommender route could get you a really unique perspective. "Don't forget about teachers who are advisors to clubs you're in," agrees Cara Milhaven, a sophomore at Villanova University. "You limit yourself by only thinking about the teachers that have you in class."
It doesn’t hurt to let your writer know what you think a certain college is looking out for in your letter. “So many recommendation letters sound the same and ultimately serve as a neutral in the admissions process,” Norman says. Tell your writer that you want to stand out! “Your teachers’ opinions about you will be more memorable if they include specific examples,” Ivey adds. They should let you know if they don’t feel they can communicate this, in which case you want to pick someone else who can.
Recommendation letters can speak to other parts of your personality as well. A college is interested in how you contribute beyond just the classroom, since it is a place where you’re not going to simply work, but also live. A rec letter can potentially demonstrate “what kind of curiosities and passions you have, and...what kind of roommate and friend you’re going to be,” according to Sutton-Skinner. See, colleges are looking at more than just numbers!
“I picked the teachers I had actually had a connection and spent time with,” says Royall Bryan, a junior at Christopher Newport University. “They were teachers who could attest to my personality and not just my academic strengths and achievements.” It’s not just about your scholarly endeavors, even though the college process might make it seem that way.
What makes a letter fall short
It’s unlikely that a recommendation letter could pose a complete deal-breaker to a college. After all, if whomever you asked really didn’t have anything good to say about you, hopefully they would decline to write your letter (or you would realize that asking them is not the move).
While it’s unlikely that your letter will be a straight up flop, there can be instances in which an admissions officer might be concerned about its contents. “It's rare to see a bad letter, but it does happen where there are clear signals given by the recommender...almost red flags waving about a particular issue or trait,” Norman says. “If a recommender takes the time to single out something negative, that's saying something.”
“A big mistake is when a teacher...spends half the letter talking about you as a student, and then the other half rehashing your résumé,” Norman says. Don’t let a recommendation letter be insignificant in your application. You want it to highlight and underline your best features and those that make you a great fit for a college. Make sure your writer is confident they have enough to say, too.
A bad recommendation can give an admissions officer pause, and an exceptionally good recommendation can make an admissions officer take a closer look [if] the rest of the rest of the profile might have been borderline,” Ivey says. Since the recommendation letter is part of the whole body of the application, it’s important to consider its effects. Again, this is all to the end of ensuring that you’re careful who you choose!
How they relate to your other application materials
As far as making up for other parts of your application that aren’t so good, recommendation letters don’t really have that power. “A truly outstanding letter can tip someone over the edge to admission, but a great recommendation would rarely, if ever, compensate for significant academic shortcomings,” Norman says.
Again, though, they aren’t inconsequential for an admissions board or officer reviewing your app. “Can recommendations compensate? Not in any kind of numerical way, but if there’s a student [about whose intellectual fit we’re concerned], and then we read a recommendation that really...gives us a great sense of that student as a student, then that can have a really positive effect,” Sutton-Skinner says.
How should you ask for them?
The thought of asking a teacher or mentor for a recommendation letter might be really awkward and tense, but remember they’re there to help you and they want you to succeed! It’s not asking too much (and if it is, they’ll let you know).
“Choose your recommendation letter writers in relation to what you see yourself doing and why you’re applying to a certain school,” says Kaitlin Manion, a graduate student at Temple University. This will enhance the specificity of your letter and distinguish your interests and accomplishments. “I chose teachers who I worked with for more than one year of my high school career,” Kaitlin adds. Again, this is good for the specifics, as they’ll have more to talk about!
In sheer logistical terms, be polite and grateful when interacting with your writer! They’re doing you an important favor. Ask in person and be sure to say thank you after the process is through. “I wrote [my recommendation letter writer] a thank you letter and hand delivered it,” says Natalie Haddad, a senior at Stephen F. Austin State University. “He was so impressed by it and told each of his classes how kind it was and how others should do the same.”
It’s unlikely, but you might run into a situation where someone you ask says no. “If they refuse, be gracious,” Amy says. It’s probably for your own good! They might not be best suited to write your letter, or they could simply be busy and have too much on their plate. “You’d rather get someone else to write it than a teacher trying to force it.” For sure.
Now that you’ve gotten the inside scoop, you should be fully prepared to ask the right instructors and mentors for recommendation letters for your college applications (and beyond)! While they may not be able to make or break your application, they are they are an indispensable part of how you present yourself in an application setting. Go forth and get good recommendation letters!