College Recommendation Letters Are NOT Letters of Reference

Many college applications give students the opportunity to submit letters of recommendation. Do not make the mistake of thinking these are letters of reference.

Easy to Confuse

It might be easy to confuse college recommendation letters with the types of letters students are asked to submit in other areas of their lives. 

You might have to provide references in order to get a job. Students wanting to join Greek life in college are asked to submit character references. In both of these examples, an applicant’s ability to get along with others, positive outlook, work ethic, and character are essential. 

While you might think colleges are looking for the same information, they are not.

What Colleges Want

Yes, colleges want students of good character who can work hard and get along with others. Applicants are assumed to have these characteristics, so that isn’t what the admissions office is looking for in recommendation letters. 

What colleges are looking for is more complex. 

The first issue is “Can an applicant do the work?” Will the student be academically able to engage with the content at the pace and level expected at that particular school? 

At selective schools, the admissions office is looking at more in-depth issues. As you can imagine, most of the applicants at Stanford, Rice, Columbia, and Duke, etc. have the grades and test scores demonstrating their academic readiness. These schools are looking for more. They want to see an interest in learning, genuine curiosity, a willingness to challenge oneself with rigorous coursework, impact on others, etc. 

Effective letters of recommendation should share the type of information colleges want. 

What Colleges Don’t Want

I could write a dozen articles on the types of letters that miss the mark. Some misses include the obvious form letter and the letter that repeats resume items without adding anything more. 

Colleges want to know more about the applicant, so be sure to ask someone who knows you well. It is hard to believe, but each year admissions officers get letters from teachers that say, “I think I had this student in class a year or two ago, but don’t know them well enough to say more. Sorry.” Always ask before submitting someone’s information to make sure that person remembers you and feels comfortable writing a recommendation. 

Letters from distant acquaintances or family connections, no matter how influential or famous, carry little weight. Unless the writer knows the applicant personally and can speak to his or her abilities, the letter won’t help.

Additionally, colleges don’t want a huge pile of references. More isn’t better in this case. Sending more than 2-4 letters shows a disregard for the time admissions officers must spend reviewing files and comes off as desperate. 

Some colleges specify the maximum number of letters. For example, Texas A&M does not require letters, but will accept only the first two recommendations; anything after two will not be considered. 

Ok, But Not Great Letters

Some letters are a miss because in spite of the positive things they share, they don’t provide information needed to move an application into the “YES” pile.

Here’s where it helps to honestly evaluate your application. How will your letter(s) be used at this particular school? What potential weaknesses could a letter dispel? What strengths could it reinforce? 


Let’s go back to the question of what colleges want. I’ve met with a number of students this summer who are applying to state universities in Texas. They fall short of the top 10% for automatic admission, so know their applications will go to review. These students need to show academic readiness for college level work. 

Yes, a great letter from the swim coach, dance instructor, youth group mentor, longstanding employer, or community service supervisor can help. But do these letters show the applicant’s ability to do college level work? Pairing one of these letters with a recommendation from a teacher in a core academic area would be better.

The clients applying to the highly selective colleges need to think about their recommendations with an eye to provide the type of in-depth information colleges want. Asking two people who will provide essentially the same information is a potentially costly missed opportunity.


Letters of recommendation in college admission are not the same as character references. Colleges presume applicants are nice, honest, and hard working (until proven otherwise) and are looking for recommendations to say more. Understanding what colleges want and evaluating your own strengths and weaknesses can help you identify the best people to write your letters.

college applications, how to get into college, letters of recommendation, tips for college admission

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