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What College Admissions Officers Look For: How Important Are Letters of Recommendation?

By — John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Letters of recommendation from counselors, teachers, and outside people are subjective factors, that can add weight to your application. Some colleges ask for one teacher or counselor letter, others ask for two teacher letters and a counselor letter, and others don’t specify an amount. If you have additional letters from another teacher or an outside person, such as a coach, an internship supervisor, an employer, or someone else, you can include these letters if you and your guidance counselor feel that these letters reveal something about you that is different from your other letters. Colleges do not appreciate receiving four or more letters, unless the letters add significant value to your application. If you have a letter from a senator or a political candidate in whose office you volunteered, but you did not have a personal relationship with that person, the letter is usually filled with fluff and does not reveal anything meaningful about you. After three or four recommendations, most letters become repetitive, so when in doubt, leave it out!

College admissions counselors don’t want to read general letters that read, “Tim is a quiet and studious student who gets 100s on all my tests.” They would rather read letters that are specific, such as “Tim is an intellectually curious student who stayed after class to engage me in conversation about a book he recently read for pleasure. He does not have the highest average in the class, but he does have a passion for learning, and his paper on the use of herbal medicines in Chinatown was carefully researched, well organized, and featured critical analyses of primary and secondary sources.” Which letter would you rather read: One that is general and says very little about the person or one that is specific and says a great deal about the person’s academic potential in college? So, the bottom line is to choose carefully who to ask for letters of recommendation.

Now that you have an idea about who to ask, when is the best time to ask a teacher to write a letter for you? You can ask teachers during your junior year (or earlier) if they will write a letter of recommendation. Some teachers write letters over the summer, so make sure you ask them before the end of your junior year, and then remind them at the beginning of your senior year. Can teachers say no when you ask them to write a letter? Absolutely! It is their right to decline to write a letter if they don’t feel they can write an effective letter for you. My husband, a physics teacher, has on occasion turned down students, but he is usually very tactful about how he does it. He usually says, “I think it’s a good idea if you ask another teacher.” If a teacher hems and haws and doesn’t say yes right away, it may be an indication that he or she cannot write a terrific letter for you. Many teachers do not want to hurt a student’s feelings, so they write a lukewarm letter which does not really help your case. When you ask teachers, you could say, “Do you feel comfortable writing a letter of recommendation for me?” or “Do you think you can write a strong letter of recommendation for me?” If they say yes, that’s great. If they hesitate or say no, then you probably should ask a different teacher.

The best letters are from teachers who know you well, who you have formed a bond with, and in whose class you have either performed fairly well or demonstrated interest. Guidance counselor letters are usually required—another good reason to get to know your counselor. A specific letter from a teacher, counselor, or outside person can enhance your college application, and can demonstrate what type of student and person you are and your readiness for college.

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