How Do Letters of Recommendation Work for College?

Letters of recommendation for college are a positive endorsement of the academic achievements and personal characteristics of college applicants. They are usually written by high school counselors and high school teachers, but other recommenders can write them, too, depending on the specifications of colleges and universities that require them.

Not all postsecondary institutions require applicants to submit recommendation letters — those who do consider them differently in terms of how important recommendations factor in the admissions process.

Applying to your dream school such as Harvard University or California Institute of Technology and being asked to submit letters of recommendation? Keep reading this post.

Below are some of the most important things you need to know about college recommendation letters.

Why Do Colleges Ask for Recommendations

Colleges ask for letters of recommendation because they want to get to know applicants more beyond their GPAs and test scores from the perspective of those whom they learned from and interacted with. Through different recommenders, college admissions officers learn about the talents, skills and achievements of applicants.

High school transcripts, SAT and ACT scores, extracurricular activities, volunteer experience, personal statements, supplemental essays — these things speak volumes about college-bound teens.

However, they don’t say it all.

College admissions officers, as a result, want to read recommendation letters to gain more insight into those who wish to become a part of the campus community, thus allowing them to make a more holistic admissions decision each time.

What Do Colleges Look for in Recommendations

It’s common practice for some colleges and universities to specify from which particular authority in a high school teener’s academic life the recommendation letter should come.

That’s because they know that the recommender can provide a more intricate insight into an applicant.

Of course, colleges want to know what students are like inside the classroom so that they can put their GPAs and class rank into context. They also want to learn what they are like outside the classroom to have a much better idea of what they could contribute to the campus community should they be given an offer to enroll.

Basically, a letter of recommendation is meant to help college admissions officers round out an applicant’s profile.

How Much Do Letters Matter for College?

According to Inside Higher Ed, letters of recommendation matter differently to postsecondary institutions that require incoming freshmen students to submit one or more.

Here’s how responding colleges see counselor recommendations:

  • 15% say they are of considerable importance
  • 46% say they are of moderate importance

On the other hand, here’s how they consider teacher recommendations:

  • 11% say they are of considerable importance
  • 46% say they are of moderate importance

Whether seen with considerable importance or moderate importance, the fact remains that letters of recommendation matter in admissions, particularly for colleges and universities that ask for them.

Who Should Write Them

Letters of recommendation, generally speaking, can be written by anyone other than a family member of the college applicant.

It can be a teacher, coach, mentor, boss, religious leader, etc.

In many instances, colleges that ask for recommendation letters for admission purposes specify which recommenders should write them.

Before you approach someone on your high school campus for a letter of recommendation, make sure that you double-check with the website of your top-choice college from whom a recommendation should come.

The following are the different kinds of recommendations college admissions officers ask for:

Counselor Recommendation

A counselor recommendation, which is also sometimes referred to as a counselor evaluation, is a written statement by the high school counselor of the college applicant. It talks about a number of things a college might want to know about the student, including his or her personal character, academic performance and extracurriculars.

Some colleges and universities that require applicants to submit only one recommendation letter indicate that it should come from a high school counselor, which is usually submitted with a secondary school report.

Teacher Recommendations

Also known as a teacher evaluation, a teacher recommendation is a written assessment of an academic teacher. It discusses the college applicant’s personal and, most especially, academic characteristics as demonstrated inside the classroom. Colleges are well aware that a teacher can paint a good picture of the applicant due to the time they have spent together.

In many instances, colleges do not just specify that a letter of recommendation should come from a teacher — they also usually indicate which teacher should write it, typically a core course teacher and/or a junior or senior year teacher.

Other Recommendations

A letter of recommendation can also come from an individual other than a high school counselor or an academic teacher. There are instances where a third recommendation is required by all applicants to submit, usually from a teacher, too. At times, a third recommendation is optional and can come from just about any recommender.

New York University, for instance, allows applicants to submit a third optional recommendation letter, which can be written by an athletic coach, pastor, boss or even another academic teacher.

How To Ask for Rec Letters

To ask for college letters of recommendation, high schoolers should ask the recommenders of their choosing in person. They should then send them a formal recommendation letter request. A follow-up email politely reminding them of the recommendations may be sent 1 to 2 weeks before the college application deadline.

Before asking your teachers to write your recommendations, make sure that they would make for the best recommenders for you. Otherwise, their letters of recommendation might do your application no good.

Here are some of the things to consider when choosing from among your high school teachers:

  • They should know you well
  • They should have taught you recently
  • They should have taught you a core course

It’s good practice to approach a teacher in person first to personally discuss some important matters such as your reason for requesting a recommendation and why he or she is your chosen recommender.

Your teacher agreed to write your recommendation? Then it’s time to send him or her a formal letter of recommendation request. Remember to include or attach to your email the following:

  • A brief introduction of yourself
  • Your updated resume
  • Which course the teacher taught you and in which year level, too
  • The formatting and details required by the college (if specified)

How Many Recs Do You Need for College?

Most selective colleges and universities in the US require applicants to submit 1 to 3 letters of recommendation, usually from a high school counselor and a couple of academic teachers. There are also institutions that do not ask for any recommendation as well as those that accept optional recommendations.

Before deciding which people on your high school campus to approach to write your letters of recommendations, make sure that you research the number of recommendations your dream college needs.

It’s pointless to obtain 5 recommendations when the college requires 1 only.

Similarly, it’s catastrophic to get your hands on only 1 recommendation letter when the institution specifically asks for a total of 3 of them, especially if the application deadline is just a few days away!

Here’s an interesting piece of advice from the founder of DC College Counseling in a US News interview…

You should try to obtain 2 recommendations whether or not the college you are interested in asks for them — should you eventually decide to apply to another college that requires them, already having them is a plus.

Is Having 4 Letters Too Many?

Whether or not submitting 4 letters of recommendation is simply too many will depend on the content of the 4th recommendation. Some institutions allow applicants to submit an optional letter of recommendation, which they should do only if another recommender could provide information about you that the other recommenders failed to express.

Colleges That Need Rec Letter

The vast majority of American colleges and universities require applicants to submit letters of recommendation — around 80% of them consider recommendations in the admissions process. Most institutions that ask for recommendation letters are private ones, including Ivy League schools and other competitive ones.

Here are just a few colleges that require letters of recommendation, mostly selective schools:

  • Amherst College
  • Bowdoin College
  • Brown University
  • California Institute of Technology
  • Case Western Reserve University
  • Columbia University
  • Cornell University
  • Dartmouth College
  • Georgia Institute of Technology
  • Harvard University
  • Harvey Mudd College
  • Johns Hopkins University
  • Mount Holyoke College
  • New York University
  • Pomona College
  • Princeton University
  • Reed College
  • Scripps College
  • Skidmore College
  • Stanford University
  • Trinity College
  • University of Chicago
  • University of Delaware
  • University of Maryland
  • University of Massachusetts
  • University of Pennsylvania
  • University of Virginia
  • Vanderbilt University
  • Wake Forest University
  • Washington and Lee University
  • Williams College
  • Yale University

Colleges That Don’t Require Rec Letters

Most colleges and universities that do not require applicants to submit letters of recommendation are large public institutions whose admissions officers have to review a lot of applications each year. Usually, too, these schools would much rather gauge an applicant’s potential, such as life experiences.

The following are some postsecondary institutions where freshmen applicants need not submit recommendations:

  • Adams State University
  • Appalachian State University
  • Arizona State University
  • Bellevue University
  • California Polytechnic State University
  • Cleveland State University
  • DeVry University
  • Florida State University
  • Liberty University
  • Minerva University
  • National University
  • Northcentral University
  • Oklahoma State University
  • Pennsylvania State University
  • Saint Augustine’s University
  • Strayer University
  • The City College of New York
  • University of Minnesota
  • University of Oregon
  • University of Washington
  • Virginia Tech

Please take note that while some institutions may not include recommendation letters in the general admission requirements, some of their programs may. Similarly, some of their campuses may require the submission of recommendations.

Also, some colleges and universities that do not require applicants to submit letters of recommendation still welcome them and may even be helpful for admissions officers in making decisions, such as those at the University of Oregon.

Answering Your Questions

Below I will answer some other frequently asked questions on college recommendation letters that many high schoolers would like to ask but might be too shy to do so.

When Do You Ask for Recs

The best time to ask teachers to write recommendation letters is 6 to 8 weeks before the college application deadline. Whether students should ask for teacher recommendations during their junior or senior year of high school will depend on an institution’s preferences. For instance, a college may require letters of recommendation from senior-year teachers.

How Do You Ask College Professors for Recs

To ask college professors for recommendation letters, college-bound high schoolers should make a formal request via email and determine whether or not they would be willing to be their recommenders. Students should explain to their chosen professors the purpose of the letters of recommendation being requested as well as why they have chosen them as recommenders.

Sending via Common App

To send letters of recommendation to colleges through the Common App, students must go to the My Colleges tab of the platform and then to the Recommenders and FERPA section. Below is the Teacher or Other Recommender section where they can invite teachers by clicking on the Invite Teacher button. Recommenders can then be assigned to colleges.

Sending via Coalition App

To send letters of recommendation to colleges through the Coalition App, students must head to the My Colleges page and then click on the Request Recommendations to be able to enter the names of teachers from whom they are requesting recommendations. The recommenders will then have to send their recommendations by means of Scoir.

Do You Need Different Letters of Recommendation for Each College?

In most instances, the same letter of recommendation can be sent to several different colleges and universities, which is why it often starts with “To Whom It May Concern”. However, it’s not uncommon for some institutions to prefer a more personalized recommendation letter, the kind that discusses why the applicant might be a good match for the school.

How Long Should Recommendation Letters Be?

The general consensus is that letters of recommendation should be under 1 page long — recommendations with multiple pages are simply too lengthy and usually filled with unnecessary details. Since college admissions officers have to read a lot of recommendations and other documents, keeping things brief and the use of bullet points is recommended.


The timely submission of college application requirements speaks volumes about an applicant’s organizational and time management skills. However, in most instances, colleges will accept external components of an application form, such as letters of recommendation, although it’s still best for them to be submitted on or before the deadline.

Do Colleges Accept Late Recommendation Letters?

College admissions officers are well aware of the fact that high school counselors and teachers have very busy lives, even more so during college application seasons, which is why most of them will accept late recommendation letters. Still, policy can vary from institution to institution, and applicants must verify a college’s rule on recommendation letter submission.

Do Colleges Notify You If They Receive Recs?

Colleges usually do not notify applicants if they receive their letters of recommendation. Students can determine whether or not their recommendations have already been submitted by checking the status on the application portal. Should they suspect that their recommendations have yet to be submitted, they may call the college’s admissions office to ask about the matter.

Do Colleges Verify Recommendation Letters?

Colleges can always verify letters of recommendation sent by applicants, and they can do so by getting in touch with the recommenders themselves — students are also asked to submit the personal and contact details of their recommenders. However, it’s very rare for college admissions officers to do so because of time constraints.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the College Reality Check.

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