College Applications: Who Needs Recommendation Letters?

Who Needs Recommendation Letters?

Letters of recommendation fall into two categories—required and optional.  Schools requiring letters will specify what they want, often one counselor letter and one or more teacher letters. Letters are optional for all other schools, but can often help reinforce a student’s strengths.  Recommendations are almost essential in the following situations:
  1. A student needs someone else to help explain an obstacle or hardship.  Learning disabilities, deaths in the family, unusual personal or family challenges can all fall into this category and a school counselor is often the person who can help explain.
  2. The applicant needs clarification from a school official to explain what is or isn’t on the transcript.  If she was unable to take another year of math or foreign language because it wasn’t offered on campus or if he was limited to two AP classes a year by school policy, the school counselor can help explain.
  3. A student does not meet the standards for automatic admission at a state university and / or the application will undergo review.  Letters of recommendation from teachers and optional essays will help in the holistic review process.

Who Should Write Recommendation Letters?

You have control over who writes letters.  It is a strategic decision to ask the right people.  Who knows your child well?  Who can add something to the application that isn’t well represented in the resume and essays?  Who can speak to your child’s academic strengths? Students should include at least one academic teacher who has taught them in class for at least one full semester.  Students don’t have to earn an A in the class to ask for a recommendation.  They want to ask the teacher who can discuss in detail their academic abilities. Academic strengths are best illustrated with specific examples.  Rather than listing traits or activities from a student’s resume, strong letters will explain a particular project, paper, or situation and show student strengths by discussing how he or she handled the work.

Who Should NOT Write a Letter of Recommendation?

Quality letters of recommendation come from people who know the student well and can speak, in detail, about his or her character, personality, strengths, and weaknesses.  Skip the big names and stick to people who know the applicant. Well meaning friends and family may offer their personal connections in order to get “a letter with some real pull.”  Unfortunately, your golfing buddy or boss won’t write the best letters no matter how famous or well connected they are.]]>

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Comments (4)

    • Maria,
      How many depends. Usually 2-3 letters are appropriate. Some schools require 1 teacher and 1 counselor. Once you settle on your college list, you will know what each school requires.

    • Maria,
      Usually you just ask. Your school may have a specific process for requesting and sending letters, so check with your school’s guidance counseling office.
      Also, letters are specific to the colleges you decide to apply to. If you are using the Common Application ( the forms are online and your teachers / counselor can access them electronically. Other applications have specific teacher / school recommendation forms either in paper copy or online. If recommendations are a required (or suggested) part of an application, use the forms found with your application materials.
      If you want an optional letter for a college or university that does not have a recommendation, teachers, coaches, counselors, or mentors can send a recommendation letter. You will want to provide them with a stamped, addressed envelope and all the information necessary for that letter to be matched up with your application file.

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