Many colleges use a holistic process to evaluate applicants, seeking to understand the "whole person" and not solely rely on grades and test scores. One way they accomplish this is by reading recommendation letters from teachers and counselors.
This guide will discuss what exactly admissions officers are looking for in your recommendation letters, and why they’re so important to your overall candidacy. By understanding the purpose of rec letters, you’ll be in a better position to gather strong ones for your application.
To begin, let’s take a closer look at what admissions officers mean when they talk about using a holistic admissions process.
What’s a Holistic Application Process?
More and more students apply to college each year. At many schools, especially selective ones, there’s a surplus of qualified students for a limited number of available spots.
Because so many students are qualified in terms of their grades and test scores, admissions officers can’t rely entirely on this objective criteria. Instead, they use a holistic process to get to know the whole student, including her personality, values, and goals. This awareness helps them determine who to accept, plus it allows them to build a diverse class of students with a variety of interests, experiences, and goals.
For these reasons, admissions officers seek to get to know each student, from what motivates her to what role she might play on a college campus. They gain insight from the student directly, but they also learn a lot from what school authorities have to say - specifically, from teachers and counselors in their letters of recommendation.
Your recommendation letters can (and should) reveal a number of things about you. They should speak to your academic strengths and interests, your personal qualities, your role in your school community, and your potential direction in the future. Whether your recommenders talk about it explicitly or not, a positive letter also suggests your ability to get along with your teachers and others in your school.
For admissions officers seeking to learn more about you, these letters offer a great deal of insight into who you are and how you’ll fit in and work with others at college. Plus, they lend support to the idea that you’ll contribute and add value to your college campus and society in the future. Let’s take a closer look at what specifically colleges look for in letters of rec and why, starting with your academics.
Your Intellectual Strengths and Interests
Recommendations serve as important testaments to your ability to do college-level work. Your teacher recommendations, especially, speak to your attitude towards learning, your accountability, and your academic interests.
Admissions officers want to find students who will excel in the classroom. As institutions of scholarship and intellectualism, they seek engaged students who are eager to entertain new ideas and contribute to lively discussions.
Beyond the classroom, professors and higher ed faculty look for students who will go on to create value in society. They want to train the next generation of researchers, writers, inventors, engineers, or entrepreneurs. They're looking for students who will make the world a better place and utilize their education to contribute to the world around them.
Finding students with a strong stake in education, therefore, is an essential objective of admissions officers when they sit down to review recommendations. As Harvard’s dean William Fitzsimmons says, recommendation letters are “extremely important” and admissions officers are looking for letters that reveal “intellectual curiosity, creativity, and love of learning.”
Since admissions officers want to learn about your academic performance and goals in your rec letters, what can you do to get a good letter that speaks to these qualities?
What This Means for You
As you probably know, you should ask a teacher who you impressed in class with your commitment, effort, or interest in a subject. If you know what you plan to study, then it’s a good idea to ask a teacher in that field. Even if you just have a vague idea, like you’re drawn to the humanities or the sciences, then you may ask the relevant teacher to corroborate your affinity for that area.
Most students ask their junior year teachers, since those teachers had you in class recently and for a whole year. Make sure the teacher you ask is happy to provide you with a recommendation, and let her know about any specific plans you have for study. Since admissions officers want to find students with a love of learning and commitment to their education, then ideally you have a teacher who recognizes those qualities in you and can express them in her letter.
Having your teachers write about your academic prowess in your letter may be a no-brainer. It may be less obvious, though, that admissions officers want to learn about other inner qualities, like character and personality. They want to know what you're like and how you express yourself in your community. Why is gaining insight into your personal side important on your college application?
Your Personal Qualities and Role In Your Community
Why do admissions officers want to learn about your personal qualities? Isn’t it enough to know your grades and test scores?
Well, no. I touched on some reasons why admissions officers want to get to know you above and will go into more detail about them here. For one thing, they want to get to know you to add depth to your application. There’s often a surplus of students with high grades and scores for a limited number of spots. Admissions officers need to use other factors to determine eligibility for admission.
Additionally, they want to build a class of students with diverse personalities and experiences. Colleges are their own communities, and admissions officers want to admit students who will live, work, and play together harmoniously.
They want students with strong character, creativity, and/or leadership qualities who will contribute positively to the community. To refer to Dean Fitzsimmons again, he says, "Recommendations can help us to see well beyond test scores and grades and other credentials and can illuminate such personal qualities as character and leadership."
Students may lead volunteer trips, organize community service, or provide social-emotional support for one another. They'll build friendships that will help them grow and mature. By selecting for strength of character and social skills like caring and compassion, admissions officers can create an environment that will function smoothly and maximize student learning and development.
College is a busy and transformative time in your life, and admissions officers are seeking to build a community of students who will contribute meaningfully, take advantage of opportunities, and build positive relationships with one another. Knowing the importance of sharing your personal side in your rec letters, is there anything you can do to help out your recommenders as they write your letters?
What This Means for You
Just as you want to choose a recommender who you impressed in class, you also want to ask someone who knows you well. The only way your teachers and counselors can add depth to your application and write about you in a revealing and meaningful way is if they’ve gotten to know you. This doesn’t mean that they’ll know you as well or in the same way as your best friend, but they should have a good sense of your personality and what’s important to you.
If you're just going into junior year, then you should keep your future rec letters in mind. Push yourself to participate in class and share your personality with your teachers. If you haven't gotten to know your counselor, make an appointment to meet with her and talk about your college plans. You may also share a lot on your "brag sheet," but ideally your recommenders already know you well before reading your ideas.
Apart from your day to day personality, how can you show others around you what's important to you? As the old saying goes, actions speak louder than words. Think about what you value most - whether it's cleaning up the environment, working to reduce bullying, or creative expression. Then come up with steps to connect those values to your daily actions.
Show your recommenders what's important to you by what you do and how you do it on a daily basis. Not only will this help them get to know you better, but they'll gather plenty of stories and observations to share in their recommendation letters.
Beyond promoting positive relationships among peers, admissions officers also want students who can work well with faculty and other higher ed administrators. Your rec letters can speak to how you work with others. Why is this important to admissions officers?
How You Interact with Faculty and Others
As you read above, recommendation letters can go a long way toward describing your academic and personal qualities. These features are important in your college application, as admissions officers are looking to build a motivated, successful class of students who will seize opportunities and go on to contribute to society during college and beyond. Since college is a highly collaborative and interactive environment, admissions officers also care about your relationships with others.
Simply obtaining a strong rec letter stands by itself as a testament to your ability to get along well with faculty. Your recommenders will write about their impressions of and relationship with you. Admissions officers will gain a sense of how you act in classroom settings. They can try to ensure that you'll establish productive relationships with professors and make the most of their teaching.
Apart from the considerations talked about above, is there anything else you can do to ensure your letter talks about your ability to work well with faculty?
What This Means for You
Just as you want to ask a recommender who's gotten to know you well, you want someone with whom you had a positive and meaningful working relationship in class. Did your teacher see you as accountable and reliable? Did she consider you a pleasure to teach and see you as someone who appreciated her time?
Just as these expectations are present in the high school setting, they're also important in the college setting. Keep in mind how you interacted with faculty when asking for letters of recommendation. It's important that admissions officers see you as a student worthy of investment who will establish productive relationships with professors and make the most of their valuable time.
Admissions officers want to learn about you to gain a sense of the student that could arrive on campus. All of these elements add up to a vision of you in the future. Plus, your recommenders might explicitly write about what they see you accomplishing at college and beyond. Let's take a look at this last important feature of rec letters and why it matters to admissions officers.
A Vision of You In the Future
Taken collectively, all of these elements of rec letters provide a vision of your future direction. If your teacher writes about your love of writing, work on the school paper, and interest in international events, then admissions officers get the sense that you might work on the paper at college and perhaps, pursue a career in journalism. Further, if your teacher talks about your thoughtful and caring personality and engagement in class, then the admissions committee can feel confident that you'll get along well with your peers and professors.
Why is this important? Again, admissions officers want to build a community of students who get along well and create an environment full of learning and opportunity. They want to make the most of the professors' time. They want to educate the next generation of leaders who will contribute meaningful ideas, innovations, and solutions to the world.
As you can tell, your recommendation letters serve a very important purpose in your application. They can communicate a great deal about who you are as a student, colleague, and person. In closing, let's review the significant role of recommendations in your application and what you can do to help your teachers and counselors produce strong ones that will impress the college officials who read them.
To Sum Up...
Recommendation letters are an important part of your application. They communicate a lot of revealing information about you to admissions officers, who are looking for students with impressive academic, personal, and social skills who will succeed in college and beyond, in whatever way that's authentic to them.
You may be thinking that a lot of this key part of your application is out of your hands. However, you actually can have a lot of control over what your teachers and counselors write in your rec letters.
For one thing, you can push yourself to participate and get to know your faculty throughout high school and especially junior year. Consider how you interact with teachers and communicate your personality and values to them, as all of this is important material for your letters.
Once you actually ask for your letters, you can also talk to them about what you plan to study and what qualities you'd like them to emphasize. If you're applying to study engineering, ask your physics teacher to highlight your skill in the subject.
Finally, you can provide a detailed and thoughtful brag sheet in which you reflect on your identity and the significant experiences that have shaped who you are today. This brag sheet will help clarify both your thoughts and that of your recommenders. Plus, it will remind them of stories and examples they can include in their letters to make them stand out.
Above all, your takeaway should be that recommendation letters are an important part of your application that can go a long way toward endorsing you to admissions officers. With that in mind, treat your letters of recommendation with as much care and thought as you will all the other parts of your college application!
Even though you can contribute your thoughts to what should go into your recommendation letters, you probably won't be able to read the final versions. Why? Because FERPA. Read here about why it's in your best interest to waive FERPA and your right to view your recommendation letters.
Now that you have a sense of what admissions officers are looking for in recommendation letters, check out these examples of strong teacher letters of recommendation.
Are you applying to a selective school, like Harvard? This guide goes over what makes for an outstanding letters of recommendation for the Ivy League.
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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.