College admissions readers are receiving thousands of applications, and the majority of them are accompanied by multiple letters of recommendation. These letters are crucial to conveying your suitability for a particular college and field of study, so it’s imperative that letters submitted on your behalf distinguish you from other students.
Each college has its own rules on the number you can submit; there are some that only allow one, and others allow up to ten letters of recommendation. We typically don’t recommend more than four because if the writers are well chosen, submitting more will not increase your chances of acceptance and may even annoy the admissions committee.
Determining Who to Ask
Choose people who can reveal different dimensions of your character. You want someone who can write meaningful things about you, so don’t just go searching for the biggest, most well-known name within your social circle—unless they truly know you on a personal level.
Consider which of your potential recommenders is the most qualified for explaining your depth as an individual and why you are a strong candidate for the school. When it comes to writing the letter, some elements that are used to describe your character include your motivation, integrity, intellectual promise, initiative, and self-confidence. To stand out, find someone who can communicate your values—such as perseverance or being detail oriented—in a unique way.
Sources for Letters of Recommendation
It may not feel like it, but you have significant control over influencing how people perceive you. Your daily actions and attitude are noticed, and they influence the perceptions of potential recommenders. Always be authentic, but try to ensure your actions present you in a positive light.
Below are the most common sources for recommendation letters and our insight on each.
An English or history teacher is often the strongest person to write a letter of recommendation for you. They are in unique position to write about your contributions to class discussions and quality of your writing. No matter what you plan to pursue, colleges care about your perspective and communication skills. Prioritize building a strong relationship with your humanities teachers; so when the time comes, they’ll jump at the opportunity to write you a letter of recommendation.
For students interested in STEM fields at least one letter is a must. If you are interested in health sciences, a biology or chemistry teacher is often best. If focused more toward engineering, consider a physics teacher. Even if you are not planning to pursue a STEM subject in college, teachers in these areas may be good for outlining your diverse or interdisciplinary interests. However, keep in mind that not all STEM teachers have an affinity for expressive writing; therefore we recommend you use this letter to compliment that of your humanities teacher.
Almost always a requirement, guidance counselors write more letters than anyone else in the school; however, most students don’t recognize their value until it’s time to apply to college. Make the most of this opportunity by getting to know them as soon as possible. Arrange appointments with them to have conversations about what you’re doing in and out of school. By seeking their advice on how to best explore your developing interests as well as colleges you are researching early in the process, you will naturally build rapport with them. In doing so, you are demonstrating that you’re proactive, thinking ahead and have respect for their expertise.
Sports can be a great way to get recognized for your performance outside of the classroom. If you play regularly, chances are you’ve spent a lot of time training after school with your coach. Approach them for a letter as they can vouch for other sides of your personality that may otherwise go undetected in class, such as your self-discipline, leadership, or humor. Additionally, if you build a relationship off the field, we recommend asking them to mention any interests you have that are seemingly unrelated to sports, such as art or reading. This will bring the letter to life and help your character shine through on paper.
Look beyond your immediate academic network to find others in your life who can shed a positive light on your achievements and qualities outside of the classroom. Consider employers, advisors of school clubs, volunteer supervisors, spiritual leaders, and anyone else that you feel not only has a good understanding of who you are as an individual but can provide a context or insight the others might not. As mentioned previously, refrain from asking individuals solely because of their reputation. Colleges want to understand you on a deeper level; they value that depth more than who you know.
However close you are to starting college, it’s never too early to be thinking about choosing who to write your letters of recommendation. As one of the most critical aspects of your college application, it’s important to develop the relationships with mentors you can trust and who recognize your values and character in ways that grades and test scores never will.
If determining who you should ask to represent your college interests still feels daunting, reach out for help. We can assess your prospects and devise a strategic action plan for earning letters of recommendation that stand out. Want help on other aspects of the college admission process? Contact us to learn more about our early mentoring and comprehensive guidance programs.