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The role of letters of recommendation in college admissions


Early Action and Early Decision deadlines are right around the corner. As students gather all of their application material, including personal statements, supplemental essays, transcripts, standardized test scores, and letters of recommendation, they might wonder how everything gets evaluated. After all, it is easy to compare SAT scores or GPAs, but how do admission officers review more subjective aspects of the college application, like letters of recommendation?

Many selective colleges will require students to submit between one 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 school, you can submit letters from people outside your school, like research mentors, managers at jobs, coaches, etc. As you create your college list, see what each school requires. 

These letters of recommendation are submitted to the colleges when the student is applying. Just like with everything else you submit to colleges, it is important to be strategic about who you are asking for letters of recommendation and how many you are sending. 

Whom To Ask

Typically, we recommend students ask two teachers from their junior year with whom they formed a good relationship. Junior-year teachers will know you best and have seen you tackle higher-level material. It might also be a good idea to ask a teacher related to the major/career path you want to pursue in college. 

For outside letters of recommendation, some students think asking an influential person from a university will help them get into that particular school. However, if they don’t know you well, the letter will not improve your candidacy and could, in fact, hurt you. It’s better to have recommendations from people who know you well and can speak deeply about your accomplishments. 

When To Ask 

At Moon Prep, we encourage our students to connect with their teachers at the end of their junior year to ask if they will write you a letter. This way, it gives them time to write a thoughtful letter detailing your accomplishments and good qualities. 

Some schools limit the number of letters a teacher can write, so ask early so you aren’t disappointed later on. 

Is Sending More Letters of Recommendation Better?

Some schools will let you send upwards of five letters of recommendation, but sending the maximum allowed is always better. Think about who you are asking, your relationship with them, and what unique aspects they can add to your recommendations. 

How Do Colleges Consider Letters of Recommendation? 

The purpose of the letters is to see if a student is portraying themselves authentically through their essays, activities, and even an interview. 

Harvard Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William Fitzsimmons said, “Recommendations can help us to see well beyond test scores and grades and other credentials and can illuminate…intellectual curiosity, creativity, and love of learning.”

Submitting letters of recommendation from someone who knows you well can give a college an outsider’s perspective and holistic view of your overall personality and goals and hopefully increase your chances of getting accepted to your dream school. 

*Brandie is a College Counselor & Outreach Coordinator at MoonPrep.

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