How Many Letters of Recommendation Will We Need for College?

This summer I’m writing articles focusing on different aspects of the college application. You can review earlier articles:

Today we will look at letters of recommendation— who needs them, how many, and who to ask. 

The truth is that most college applications do not require letters of recommendation. Many students will successfully apply to all the colleges on their lists and never ask for a letter, but some students will find recommendations are a required or suggested part of their admissions checklist. Let’s look at who needs letters, how many, and who you should ask. 

Required Recommendations

Some college applications ask for letters of recommendation.  Those that do will be clear about what is required. You should check the admissions website for each school on your list. 

For example, MIT’s website says: 

“We require letters of recommendation from two teachers. We recommend one evaluation from a math/science teacher, and one from a humanities, social science, or language teacher. We also require materials from your school counselor (typically including your transcript, a school profile, and a letter of recommendation).”

Other schools may not be as specific as MIT, but they will still be clear that letters are a required part of your application. The TCU website mentions two required elements: 

  1. The Counselor evaluation/recommendation form (or secondary school report) must be submitted directly from the school official. We cannot accept this form from the applicant. 
  2. The Teacher evaluation/recommendation must be submitted directly from the school official. We cannot accept this form from the applicant.

Some schools will have different requirements for first time freshman and transfer applicants, so make sure you find the requirements that apply to you. 

Here is where I remind you to go directly to the college or university website. Schools change policies all the time. You cannot rely on my website or others to provide up to date information for all of your schools. 

Optional (But Suggested) Recommendations 

Some schools do not require letters of recommendation, but are willing to consider them. I suggest you send these optional letters if you are not already qualified for automatic or assured admission. 

In Texas both A&M and UT will accept up to two optional letters. The UT website says:

“You may submit up to two optional letters of recommendation with your admission application. These letters may be from teachers, mentors, or people who know you well, either within or outside of your high school. The letter should be able to give additional context or information to support your admission that is not already provided in your application or other submitted documents (résumé, transcripts).”

University of Oklahoma will accept up to three optional letters. Their website has some good advice: https://www.ou.edu/admissions/apply/freshman/lettersofrecommendation

Do not assume all schools will accept recommendations. UCLA’s website says 

“We do not require or accept letters of recommendation.” 

Again, check every school on your list to understand their admissions process. 

How Many Recommendations

As you can see from the examples I’ve given, the number depends. Typically, schools accept two to three letters. 

Do not assume more is better. Reading applications, complete with essays, transcripts, scores, and letters, is a time-consuming process. There is a reason schools put a limit on the number of letters they accept. Respect their time. 

Also, extra letters rarely add anything new. They just repeat the same traits mentioned by others. Disregarding the limits (or suggestions) on numbers of letters makes an applicant look desperate, not desirable. 

Who to Ask

Ask people who know you well and can speak to your strengths, weaknesses, and potential as a student. 

This is where personal knowledge beats big names. Mr. Buchanan your junior year history teacher will send a more impactful letter than your state’s governor or a trustee of the university who only knows you casually or through association to a family member.

If a school, MIT for example, specifies who you should ask, follow instructions. 

How to Send

Again, the answer to this is check with each school. Let’s look at some of the options from schools I’ve already mentioned. 

MIT: “You will be able to request recommendations in your MIT application portal. You can request these letters at any point before submitting your application, but we recommend sending the request as soon as you have determined who you would like to ask so that they have as much time as possible to write about you!”

TCU: Letters can be submitted through a school supported system (Naviance, Common App, Coalition, Duolingo), email, fax, or mail.  

UT: Use the UT My Status document uploaded system.

OU / A&M: Email or mail.

Keep in mind that most schools want letters submitted directly from your school. Your school counselor should be able to help with this process. 

Deadlines

This might be the most challenging part of the process. Here are a few tips:

  • Always give at least 10 full business days for anyone writing a letter of recommendation. Allow extra time. Don’t wait until right before a deadline to ask. 
  • At some schools you have to submit your application before you can have letters uploaded by your teachers. (Typically these schools ask for letters to be submitted through their admissions portal.)
  • If recommendations are required, your application may be considered incomplete until letters arrive at the admissions office. (In other words, sending your part is not enough.)
  • For required recommendations, make sure they have arrived.  Your application will not be considered complete or on time without letters. (Check this in time to get them re-sent if there was an issue.) 
  • For optional recommendations, try to get letters sent close to the time you complete your part of the application. Remember, the university doesn’t know you are sending them, so they aren’t going to hold your application until these letters arrive. You don’t need precision timing here, but try to request letters so they arrive within a couple weeks of your application. (Too early they may get lost in the piles of paperwork; too late and a decision may have already been made without their input.)
  • Keep in mind your teachers, counselors, mentors, etc. are doing you a favor (and you want them in a happy and generous mood when they write!) You may need to follow up to make sure letters are sent, but do so nicely and only when you have already allowed 10 school days. 
  • Any policies your high school may have for recommendations will supersede what I say here. Follow the procedures on your campus. 

Conclusion

Not all applicants will need letters of recommendation. Take time to carefully review the admissions website for each school to which you apply; the website will list required and optional elements of the application. Plan ahead and allow plenty of time for your recommenders to submit their letters. 

For additional information on this topic: 

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

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