The Role of Recommendation Letters

Andrea van NiekerkBy Andrea van Niekerk|03/01/2022|6 Minutes

As we come towards the second quarter of junior year, many students begin to think about letters of recommendation as an element in their college applications. You are quite right to do so – in the 2019 NACAC State of Admission report, teacher recommendations fell in the same category of importance as application essays.


How many letters will you need?

Like everything else in college admission, it depends on the school. Most very selective colleges will want to see one or two teacher letters in addition to the counselor letter. Some public universities, such as the University of California, however, require none. Many colleges will also allow you to upload one or two supplemental letters in addition to the academic teacher letters, and a few colleges even encourage peer recommendations. While supplemental letters written by a peer, coach, or even an employer, will not carry the same weight as those written by academic teachers, they can still add valuable insights into who you are.


Whom should you ask?

Requirements vary by college, but it’s safe to say that most colleges want to have the teacher letters written by those who are instructing you in junior or senior year, in core academic subjects (math, science, English, social science and foreign language). During the pandemic lockdown many colleges were pretty flexible about these requirements, but with a return to normality, these core teachers should be the first ones you consider asking.


Some colleges also recommend that you opt for a balanced view of your performance by submitting both a STEM and a non-STEM letter. Indeed, a few schools – MIT, CalTech, Harvey Mudd and such – require such balance. But elsewhere, securing robust, personal letters should be your top priority. Of course, a breadth of intellectual interests may be a particular strength of yours, and you should try to reflect that quality in your choice of letters. But asking teachers who barely know you for a letter of recommendation, purely for the sake of such balance, seems risky.


Similarly, if your application reflects a particularly strong academic interest, whether languages, engineering, or social justice, you can amplify the reader’s perception of your engagement with that field in your choice of letters. In fact, an application from a prospective engineer without a letter from a math or physics teacher might well raise questions about the depth of that student’s interest in the field.


What would you like in those letters?

Most teachers work hard to do right by their students with letters that speak to the student’s hard work, academic success, nice disposition towards classmates, and such. But take stock of what else a teacher might be able to say about you. Can the teacher speak to your love of learning beyond working hard towards a good grade? Can your teacher address how your collaboration supports the learning of your classmates, beyond the fact that you are a pleasure to teach? Can the teacher come up with examples of your intellectual curiosity beyond mere diligence?


When should you ask?

It might seem a bit silly to think about letters of recommendation midway through junior year! And indeed, many teachers might well only write them over the summer when they too have time. But wrestling with the issue well in advance of your actual application season will allow you the time to consider your choices but also your behavior in class: after all, you can only get exceptional letters if you allow the teachers to see the exceptional student that you are!  


Moreover, in some larger high schools, certain teachers will limit the number of letters they write for students, using either a lottery or a first-come-first-served method to determine who gets one. In that case, being early and organized will make it more likely that you will be one of the lucky recipients. 


You might also want to make good use of the time available to you to consider how you can help your teacher to represent you best. You should remind your prospective recommenders of class projects when you earned extra kudos from them for a particularly great job; or discuss sections of a course that challenged you to think a bit deeper. Letters of recommendation in which teachers refer to specific moments when students impressed them are more persuasive for such examples.


In the coming months, reflect on your role in the classroom, on the impact different teachers have had on you, and on what it is that you wish colleges to know about you. Then choose the teachers who can help you convey that message. And if your teachers ask you to complete a worksheet to help them do so, take the time to do it thoroughly and thoughtfully. Given your hard work on other aspects of your application, getting the best possible letters of recommendation deserves your attention.