The Truth About Recommendation Letters Revealed (Everything You Need to Know)

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

a hand writing on a piece of paper

The Truth About Recommendation Letters Revealed (Everything You Need to Know)

What’s important when applying to college? What do you need to get accepted into the school of your choice? These are important questions to consider when preparing to apply to college. In response, most high schoolers would mention GPAs, standardized test scores, impressive high school courses, and other measurable factors. Here, we’re going to reveal the truth about recommendation letters by answering some key questions about this requirement along with providing some tips to nail this part of your application.

While these are all undoubtedly critical considerations when determining whether or not you get accepted or not, they’re not the only components. There are more subjective parts of the application such as college essays and interviews that also play an important role in the final decision.

One of the most critical of these factors is letters of recommendation. Unfortunately, letters of recommendation aren’t stressed as much as they should be in terms of importance, especially when compared to other parts of the college application process.

What impact do letters of recommendation have on the college admissions process?

Let’s kick off the discussion of the truth about recommendation letters by focusing on heir impact. Letters of recommendation play a major role in the college admissions process no matter where you’re applying. These letters will have a significant impact on the final decision of admissions officers to accept or deny your request.

That’s why it’s so important to take your time when requesting these letters from teachers or guidance counselors. The whole point of letters of recommendation is to give admissions officers deeper insights into the person behind the application.

High school student takes their open-book AP exam

The vast majority of required application documentation is rather dry and unrevealing about who you are as an individual. GPAs, high school courses, and standardized test scores don’t tell admissions officers much about you.

Letters of recommendation are used to provide colleges with a more accurate picture of what makes you unique. Teachers and guidance counselors are trusted with relaying this information to admissions officers instead of having applicants write about themselves. This perspective also gives colleges an accurate idea of the impact they had in the classroom.

How many letters of recommendation are required for colleges?

Although it varies between each university, the truth about recommendation letters is that two letters of recommendation are generally required for applicants. Of course, some require only one letter while others demand three from students. It’s important to check with your school’s specific requirements to make sure you’re fulfilling them successfully.

The truth about recommendation letters is that some schools even require different authors. For example, some schools want teachers of certain subjects to pen the letters while others want a teacher and your guidance counselor. It all depends on what your school’s admissions officers require.

How long should a letter of recommendation be?

Colleges and universities don’t specify how long letters of recommendation should be which causes a lot of undue confusion and stress for students. Don’t worry! We’re here to set the record straight.

Young woman looking serious while studying.

Letters of recommendation need to be long enough to convey enough about you that admissions officers will feel confident in their assessment of you but not too long that they’re boring to read. In short, it’s advisable to keep a letter of recommendation about a page in length.

This gives your teachers more than enough space to elaborate on who you are, what you’re like in class, why they enjoyed teaching you, and why you’d make a great addition to the college of your choice.

It’s also not too short that admissions officers would feel like they don’t know much about you. Please share this information with the instructors writing your letter of recommendation!

Example Letter of Recommendation

It’s one thing to hear about the steps you can take to obtain an ideal letter of recommendation, it’s another to read an example of one. While our tips are still applicable and can be followed to help you get the best letters of recommendation, it’s still helpful to see what kind of letter you should be looking for from teachers or guidance counselors. Here’s an example of a well-written, impactful letter of recommendation:

“Dear Admissions Committee,

It is a great pleasure to recommend Stacy for admission to your engineering program. She is one of the most exceptional students I have encountered in my 15 years of teaching. I taught Stacy in my 11th grade honors physics class and advised her in Robotics Club.

I am not surprised to find out she is now ranked at the top of an extraordinarily capable class of seniors. She has a keen interest in and talent for physics, math, and scientific inquiry. Her advanced skills and passion for the subject make her an ideal fit for your rigorous engineering program.

Stacy is a perceptive, sharp, quick individual with a high aptitude for math and science. She is driven to understand how things work, whether they be the old computer hard drives in the school library or the forces that hold our universe together.

Her final project in class was especially impressive, an investigation of frequency-dependent sound absorption, an idea that she said was sparked by not wanting to bother her parents with her hours of guitar practice at home. She’s been a strong leader in Robotics Club, eager to share her knowledge with others and learn new skills.

I have the students in the club prepare lessons and take turns leading our after-school meetings. When it was Stacy’s turn, she showed up prepared with a fascinating lecture on lunar nautics and fun activities that got everyone moving and talking. She was our only student teacher to be met with much deserved applause at the end of her lesson.

Stacy’s personal strengths are as impressive as her intellectual accomplishments. She’s an active, outgoing presence in class with a great sense of humor. Stacy’s the perfect person to get a group project rolling, but she also knows how to sit back and let others take the lead.

Her cheerful nature and openness to feedback means she’s always learning and growing as a learner, an impressive strength that will continue to serve her well in college and beyond. Stacy is just the kind of driven, engaging, and curious student that helped make our classroom a lively environment and safe place to take intellectual risks.

Stacy has my highest recommendation for admission to your engineering program. She has demonstrated excellence in all that she puts her mind to, whether it’s designing an experiment, collaborating with others, or teaching herself to play classical and electrical guitar.

Stacy’s endless curiosity, combined with her willingness to take risks, leads me to believe there will be no limit to her growth and achievements in college and beyond. Please don’t hesitate to contact me at [email protected] you have any questions.”

9 Tips for Instantly Improving Your Letters of Recommendation

1. Don’t wait until the last minute.

The biggest mistake you can make when curating letters of recommendation is waiting too long to request them from teachers. As with other parts of your college application that you have to obtain from others, you want to secure as much time as possible for these documents to get processed.

When requesting letters of recommendation from teachers, we advise students to ask at least 90 days or three months before the deadline. This advanced notice demonstrates your respect for the teacher’s time while also ensuring the final result will be timely and of high quality.

2. Ask teachers who you know well (and who know you well).

It goes without saying that the authors of your letters of recommendation play a major role in their overall impact on your college application. Yes, that’s pretty obvious. However, many students still don’t know where to start when choosing which teachers to ask.

Young student talking to her teacher in the hallway full of kids.

While any teacher can write you a good letter of recommendation, you’re looking for someone who can pen a letter that’s one-of-a-kind, amazing, stellar, fantastic…you get the idea. Look back at your whole high school experience and think about teachers that had a positive impact on you.

Ideally, you made a personal connection with this instructor who took a liking to you too. It’s these teachers who will write something that will put you in the best light for admissions officers.

3. Request the letters of recommendation in person.

There’s something impactful about asking for a letter of recommendation in person. It demonstrates confidence, determination, and seriousness.

On a more personal level, it shows your teacher that you respect them and appreciate the relationship you’ve developed. Asking via email is quick and easy but very impersonal and cold.

Spending even just a few minutes before or after class to request the letter of recommendation will work wonders for ensuring a high-quality and meaningful letter. Make sure to avoid asking in groups though as this can also feel impersonal even when asking in person.

4. Don’t be afraid to make some suggestions.

Sometimes, teachers might want a little guidance when it comes to writing a letter of recommendation. While you obviously can’t write it on their behalf or tell them what to put, it’s a good idea to give them a sense of direction, especially if they ask for some guidance.

Two women are talking while walking in the hallway.

Experienced teachers with years of experience penning letters of recommendation won’t have any issues but newer instructors might require some support.

You want to make sure that the letter of recommendation you receive is what you need since you’d be hard-pressed to get it changed at the last minute.

5. Make sure you’re meeting college requirements.

No discussion regarding the truth about recommendation letters is complete without mentioning college requirements. All schools across the country require letters of recommendation, but the specifics vary between each institution. For example, some schools require only one letter of recommendation while others request two or even three.

Another example is that many colleges only allow letters from teachers while others allow students to have other role models or school staff pen their letters. Still, others require letters of recommendation from teachers of certain subjects.

The submission details can even vary. That’s why it’s crucial to check what your school required to make sure you’re meeting all of the guidelines.

6. Handle print submissions on your own.

The College App makes it easy for instructors to submit letters of recommendation virtually. However, there are some schools that still request print submissions. Although it’s a nice gesture, handling the print submissions on your own isn’t just about respecting your teacher’s time.

When compared to simply submitting a letter of recommendation virtually, it takes a decent amount of time and energy to type out a letter, print it out, put it in the right envelope, address it correctly, and send it in time. Since it’s your college application that’s on the line, you want the responsibility to be in your hands.

7. Stay determined even when denied.

There’s a good chance that the vast majority of teachers you ask to author a letter of recommendation will be more than happy to oblige. Some might even feel honored depending on your relationship.

However, you might come across an instructor who simply doesn’t have the time or energy to write one for you. This is especially true with popular teachers because so many students request letters of recommendation – which is another reason to ask early!

When you are met with a “no”, don’t get discouraged. Remain determined and move on to your second option and so on until you find a teacher who has the time.

8. Don’t be afraid to follow up.

Whether you request a letter of recommendation from a teacher three months (which is ideal) or two weeks (don’t do that!) in advance of the deadline, don’t be afraid to follow up. It’s not seen as rude or petty.

Rather, it shows a level of responsibility and professionalism. In a practical sense, it gives you peace of mind knowing the letter of recommendation is on its way or it reminds a busy teacher that he or she agreed to do it in the first place.

Give your instructor at least a few weeks, if possible, before requesting an update. And, of course, be as polite and respectful as possible when asking.

9. Work with an admissions expert.

One of the most effective ways to ensure your letters of recommendation are perfect is to work with a college entrance expert like AdmissionSight. We have spent years studying the college admissions process to gain a better understanding of what colleges want to see from applicants. When it comes to letters of recommendation, we know exactly what admissions officers want.

A female student is being counseled by a female psychologist

Of course, we can’t write a letter of recommendation for you, but we can guide you through the truth about recommendation letters and the process of requesting and obtaining these required documents.

We’ve helped countless students get the fantastic letters of recommendation needed to catch the attention of admissions officers at the school of their dreams.

Improve Your Chances of Getting Into the School of Your Choice

Now that you know the truth about recommendation letters, you’re probably wondering how you can improve your chances of getting into your favorite school. Unfortunately, many students don’t know where to begin when aiming for these highly esteemed schools. That’s where college entrance experts like Admission Sight can help!

With over a decade of experience helping high schoolers improve their chances of getting into their dream schools, we’re leading professionals in the field. In fact, three out of every four students we work with get accepted into a Top 10 or Ivy League school. That could be you!

We have in-depth knowledge of the college admissions processes of top-level schools across the country. With this understanding, we assist high schoolers in preparing successful applications that will catch the attention of admissions officers.

Our services span a wide range of important college admissions factors including academics, extracurriculars, standardized tests, and much, much more. We make sure to cater all of our offerings to meet the specific needs of each student to better help them achieve their goals.

If you’re ready to greatly increase your chances of getting admitted into the school of your dreams, feel free to contact us today. We’ll set up a free consultation to get started.


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