Sometimes the best way to learn about preparing your college application is to know how the process works on the other side. When admissions officers sit down to review hundreds, if not thousands of applications, what are they looking to learn about you? More specifically, what do they want to find out from your letters of recommendation?
This guide will explore how readers consider your recommendation letter for college admissions, along with how you can use that knowledge to your advantage. First, what are the requirements for letters of recommendation?
What Are the Recommendation Letter Requirements?
Almost all four year colleges seek the opinions of your counselor and one or two teachers. They want to gain feedback from people who have supervised and worked closely with you in your school setting.
If you’re applying to a specific program or field of study, it’s a good idea to ask a teacher in that subject. Schools that require two recommendations often prefer to hear a range of perspectives and want you to ask one humanities teacher and one math or science teacher. MIT, for instance, specifies that they want “one math/science, one humanities.”
Admissions officers usually prefer letters from junior year teachers, since those teachers had you in class recently and for a whole year. Why are these factors important? Because teachers who know you well can add depth to your application by giving insight into your academic and personal strengths. Let’s break down more specifically what admissions officers look for in letters of recommendation.
What Do Admissions Officers Look for in Recommendation Letters?
Admissions officers want to get to know you better. They’re not looking for hyperbolic or insincere-sounding praise, but rather for a holistic view of your personality, goals, and the challenges and successes you’ve experienced up until this point.
When you apply to college, you’re aiming to present yourself in the best light. From your personal essay to how you write about extracurriculars on your college application, you’re plugging yourself as a desirable candidate worthy of admission. Recommendation letters go beyond your self-advocacy and show that your teachers and counselor endorse your candidacy, too. They both provide support and further reveal who you are as a student and person.
From your recommendation letters, admissions officers can learn about your academic interests and motivations, your personal qualities, and your contribution to your school community. These features, added together, present a vision of your future role and accomplishments at college.
Let’s break down each of these areas in greater detail and dig deeply to find out why admissions care about your academics, personal qualities, and role in your school community.
Quality #1: Your Academic Performance and Interests
First and foremost, colleges are institutions of learning and scholarship. They want to accept students who have the academic readiness and skills to succeed in the classroom, to take on innovative projects, and to contribute thought-provoking ideas to the intellectual discourse.
Colleges create tremendous value in society by educating and providing opportunities for students, who go on to solve social problems, proliferate new ideas, or invent new technologies. Through challenging courses and discussions, students develop fresh perspectives and grow as thinkers and scholars. Admissions officers want students who will succeed academically at school, spawn new ideas, and elevate the intellectual climate beyond campus.
Your recommenders, especially your teacher(s), can shed light on your interests and attitude toward learning. Their letters go beyond your grades and test scores and talk about what you’re curious about, even when it’s not assigned in the classroom. Beyond your interests and achievements, they might touch on your effort, collaboration, time management, organization, and accountability.
Again, if you’re applying to a specific program, you should obtain a recommendation from a teacher in that field. If you're planning to be pre-med, for example, have your Biology teacher corroborate your commitment to studying medicine and conducting experiments.
Below is some advice directly from college deans and admissions offices about what they want to hear from your recommenders about your academic profile.
What Do Admissions Officers Say?
Admissions officers are relatively tight-lipped about how they make their admissions decisions. However, some offer tidbits of insight, and the websites of admissions offices also give some helpful suggestions about what officers want to see. Below is some advice from Harvard, Yale, and MIT. While these schools top the list of competitiveness and selectivity, their advice could be applied to your application to just about any school.
Harvard dean William Fitzsimmons says, "Recommendations can help us to see well beyond test scores and grades and other credentials and can illuminate...intellectual curiosity, creativity, and love of learning.”
In a similar vein, the Yale admissions office states, “Not only do [recommenders] discuss your performance in their particular class or classes, but they may also write about your motivation, intellectual curiosity, energy...and impact on the classroom environment. It is important that you solicit recommendations from teachers who have taught you in academic subjects, who know you well, and who have seen you at your best.”
MIT wants to know, “Has the student demonstrated a willingness to take intellectual risks and go beyond the normal classroom experience?”
Selective and rigorous schools especially, like the ones above, want to find students who have a love of learning and a natural curiosity for deep understanding and exploration. These qualities bode well for your experience at college, and they predict impressive accomplishments and contributions to society in your future life.
Schools don’t just want to know about academics, though. For one thing, focusing only on your academic interests doesn’t tell the whole story of who you are and what you’re like. Plus, there’s an excess of academically qualified students for a limited number of spots. In building a diverse, multi-faceted student body, admissions officers want to gain a magnified look into your character and personality.
Quality #2: Your Personal Qualities and Strengths
Admissions officers want to learn about your personal qualities and strengths from your recommenders. These personal qualities could include integrity, caring for others, thoughtfulness, humor, and passion. Two traits they especially value are demonstrated leadership and strength of character.
Why do admissions officers care about these aspects? For one thing, they’re looking for students who will take advantage of the opportunities they provide at college. They want students who will edit the college newspaper, do research in the labs, or lead volunteer trips to Honduras. They want students who will inspire and be inspired, who will stand up for causes and make an impact among their peers and faculty.
In building a student body, admissions officers are constructing a community. They want that community to be made up of students who will thrive, get along with one another, and forge positive, growth-fostering connections. Just as colleges are seeking to nurture the next generation’s thinkers and creators, they’re also seeking to find and prop up leaders and people with strong character who will add to humanity’s forward progress.
Let’s take a look at what admissions offices have to say about what they’re looking for in this domain.
What Do Admissions Officers Say?
Back to you, Dean Fitzsimmons: “Recommendations are extremely important...and can illuminate such personal qualities as character and leadership.”
Note that demonstrated leadership is a compelling characteristic that impresses admissions officers, as mentioned above. Having sustained involvement in a club or sport and advancing into a position of leadership throughout high school will be looked upon favorably.
At the same time, admissions officers don’t expect all students to lead a club. You may enjoy individual pursuits, like art, writing, and photography. If this sounds like you, admissions officers will appreciate seeing a sustained commitment as you work towards a sense of expertise and self-expression.
MIT's admissions office goes into even greater detail about how your recommender can write about your personal qualities, giving guiding questions that she could answer: “A well-written letter for an outstanding applicant can highlight impressive characteristics beyond his/her own self-advocacy. We are looking for people who have and will make an impact...
- Does the applicant have any unusual competence, talent or leadership abilities?
- What motivates this person? What excites him/her?
- How does the applicant interact with teachers? With peers? Describe his/her personality and social skills.
- What will you remember most about this person?
- Has the applicant ever experienced disappointment or failure? If so, how did he/she react?
- Are there any unusual family or community circumstances of which we should be aware?”
As MIT suggests, it’s appropriate for you or your recommender to share family background or personal challenges if they shed light on your personal journey and development.
Is this all sounding personal? It is. Admissions officers are looking to gain a fuller sense of who you are from your recs. As MIT says, a strong letter can highlight your character traits beyond your own self-advocacy.
A third factor that admissions officers seek is the role you play in your school community. While this may overlap with your academic and personal qualities, it also speaks to the actions you’ve taken outside of the classroom. They don’t just want to know about your strengths, motivations, and values. They’re also looking to see how those internal qualities manifest themselves as external action.
Quality #3: Your Contributions to Your School Community
Admissions officers are seeking to build a diverse class of students who will make the campus a lively, interactive, dynamic community full of artistic, social, and supportive outlets. Students who are involved in high school are likely to get involved in college. They will seize opportunities and seek to contribute.
In a sense, understanding your role shifts focus from your internal interests and strengths to your external actions. What do you choose to invest your energy in, and how do you choose to spend your time (when you aren’t busy finishing assignments or prepping for the SAT)? Letters from teachers and counselors can also give context to your accomplishments by describing the culture of your school.
All of this circles back to the college’s mission to create value in society by educating and supporting the next generation of thinkers, professionals, creators, and leaders. By gaining a clearer picture of who you are now, they begin to have a sense of what paths you might explore in the future.
Let’s take a look at the perspectives of admissions officers on this aspect of your identity.
What Do Admissions Officers Say?
Harvard's Dean Fitzsimmons says that recommendation letters should "offer evidence of an applicant's potential to make a significant difference to a college community and beyond."
Yale specifically emphasizes your counselor as the person who can speak best to your role in your school community, as well as provide important context to your achievements: “The counselor recommendation gives us a sense of your place in your high school class and in the larger school community. Your counselor can help us assess the degree of difficulty of your program, tell us what a particular leadership position means at your school, provide information on your background, and, in general, provide the sort of textured comments about you that can help your application come to life.”
If your recommender has gone to the college you're applying to or has specific knowledge of the school or program, then she could customize the letter and write specifically about how she sees you fitting in there. MIT emphasizes this idea: "If you have knowledge of MIT, what leads you to believe MIT is a good match for this person? How might he/she fit into the MIT community and grow from the MIT experience?"
Even if your recommender doesn't have personal knowledge of the school, she can point to your high school contributions as predictive of the role you'll play at college. Finally, your recommenders should talk about any special skills or talents you have. I mentioned that your letters should focus in on your interests and passions. This is especially true if you're applying to an art or design school, like Juilliard, where admissions officers need to know that you're devoted and ready to take on the challenge of focused, determined study and practice.
Quality #4: Your Special Skill, Talent, or Commitment
While all letters should speak to your special academic skills or personal strengths, this category is important to touch on for schools that require a great amount of dedication to a specific art form or craft. Juilliard, for example, requires one artistic recommendation:
“A letter from a teacher, conductor, coach, or artistic mentor. Juilliard continues to renew its efforts to identify and educate leaders in the profession, students who can be outstanding performers and also effective advocates, collaborators, teachers, and community partners. In addition to addressing the applicant’s talent and accomplishment, the letter should also discuss the following individual characteristics which indicate potential for success in the field: 1. Perseverance; 2. Dedication; 3. Collegiality; and 4. Leadership.”
While many other colleges are looking for a diversity of interests and students who will create value in society in myriad ways, schools like Juilliard are looking for talented, dedicated performers who will carry on as leaders in their profession. Thus recommendation letters can play a vital role in the application by attesting to the student's drive and talent.
Now that you have a sense of what admissions officers are looking for in letters of rec, how can you use this knowledge to inform your college planning?
How Can You Get Strong Letters of Recommendation?
As you read above, schools want meaningful insight into your identity that goes beyond the information on your application. So who in your life can give them that? Counselors and teachers who know you well and with whom you've shared your thoughts, values, and goals for the future.
Getting to know your teachers is a process that spans the entire school year. On top of this, you can also open yourself up and share what would go into your ideal recommendation letter. Let's consider these steps individually.
Get to Know Your Teachers and Counselors
If you're reading this article as a sophomore or junior, then you're in luck! You can go into the year with a proactive mindset, making sure to participate in class and be open about your interests and goals with your teachers. If you're someone who has trouble participating a lot in class, it's still a good idea to push yourself, but you can also try to share your work and thoughts with your teachers on an individual level. At the end of the year, it's going to be hard to get a strong rec letter if you've barely said two words to your teachers.
Ultimately, you want to ask people who know you well, are enthusiastic about advocating for you, and can give an enlightened and revealing perspective. Your recommendations should add depth to your application and further personalize your candidacy. As University of Virginia says,
"Get to know your school counselor and teachers. Your school counselor and teachers have years of experience working with students preparing for college. They are a great resource to use as you navigate the college search and application process. They'll also be writing letters of recommendation for you and you want to make sure they have some interesting things to tell your colleges."
In addition to considering which teachers know you well, you should try to find out who has a reputation for writing good letters. Rec letters take time and thought to craft. If a teacher uses the same form letter for all her students, word will usually get around so you know to steer clear. Teachers known for writing good letters may get swamped with requests, so ask early before spots fill up.
When college app deadlines loom near, hopefully you have teachers and a counselor that have gotten to know you well. Regardless of how well they know you, you should help them out by sharing what you would like to go into your recommendation letter.
Share Your Thoughts
Even though teachers may keep their final letters confidential, it's definitely not cheating to talk to them about should go into your letter. In fact, it shows smart planning and organization. Just as you put time and effort into the other parts of your application, you can do a lot to shape your recommendation letters.
You should meet with your counselor and teachers and talk to them about your plans, meaningful experiences you've had, and academic and personal qualities that you'd like for admissions committees to know about you. If you're applying for a specific program, tell your recommenders. Communicate your thoughts, and in this way you'll both remind your recommenders of interesting anecdotes to include and help them write a detailed letter.
Most schools have their students fill out a "brag sheet," answering questions like, "What's a significant challenge you've overcome, and what did you learn from it?" and "What three adjectives best describe you and why?" Take your time with this, and engage in deep self-reflection so you can produce meaningful responses. While you should give your recommenders at least a month ahead of your deadline to write your letter (or ask at the junior year), your work—of reflecting and writing out your brag sheet—should start even earlier than that.
Be proactive about getting to know your teachers, and communicate your thoughts on the important elements—academic profile, personal strengths, and community presence—that admissions officers want to see in your letters. Remember that admissions committees want to build a diverse and dynamic class that will take advantage of the opportunities provided at college and achieve great things in the future. As you plan and prepare your application and talk to your recommenders, think carefully about how your rec letters can present you as a desirable candidate to join that class of successful students.
Are you deciding between teachers, or feel like you don't have anyone to ask for your letter of recommendation? Read more about who you should ask to provide this important part of your application and how and when to make your request.
Sometimes the best way to learn about recommendation letters is by reading examples of them. Check out these bad letters and what makes them so subpar. Then head over these 4 examples of great recommendations that would impress admissions officers.
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Rebecca graduated with her Master's in Adolescent Counseling from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has years of teaching and college counseling experience and is passionate about helping students achieve their goals and improve their well-being. She graduated magna cum laude from Tufts University and scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT.