college recommendation letter

The College Recommendation Letter – An Introduction

As you begin your college application process, you will likely hear a lot about college recommendation letters. In this guide, with insight from CollegeAdvisor’s expert Admission Officers, we’ll explain exactly what a college recommendation letter is. We will also cover how to request a recommendation letter for college. And, we will present an example of what a strong college recommendation letter sample looks like. 

After reading this guide, hopefully you will understand the importance of the recommendation letter for college. Above all, you will want your college recommendation letter to be written by someone who knows you well. That way, your letter of recommendation for college will be the strongest it can possibly be. As you’ll see in the college recommendation letter sample that helped one student earn admission to Harvard University, a strong letter of recommendation can help you attend your dream school. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s begin with the most important question: what is a letter of recommendation for college? 

What is a college recommendation letter?

A college recommendation letter is exactly what it sounds like. It’s an opportunity for those who know you in an educational setting to explain to an admissions committee the ways you stand out. It also helps them highlight why you would be a good candidate for college admission.

Your recommendation letter for college admission will help admissions officers get to know you from a third party perspective. They will glean insight into you beyond your personal essay, academics, and extracurricular achievements. It will help admissions officers understand: What are you like in the classroom? How do you lead your peers? What qualities do you have that would make you a great fit for the university you want to attend? A good recommendation letter for college will answer these questions and more.

Later in this guide, you’ll see a sample college recommendation letter that will demonstrate this. The college recommendation letter sample will show you first hand the type of content your teachers will be writing about you. The letter in this guide is a real recommendation that helped a student earn admission to Harvard University

These 4 steps break down how to get a great letter of recommendation for college in more depth. And, here are some more FAQs about the letter of recommendation for college admission. For now, let’s discuss why a letter of recommendation for college matters so much. 

Why is a college recommendation letter important?

Not all colleges will require a letter of recommendation, but the majority do. So, it’s generally best to plan to secure them as part of your college application process. It’s impossible to weigh the role letters of recommendation play in the overall admissions process. It will vary a bit by school. However, many schools have shifted to a holistic admissions strategy as they review college applications. A holistic admissions approach means that colleges will consider all components of your college application more evenly. This includes your academics, your extracurriculars, and especially the recommendation letter for college. 

According to Inside Higher Ed, more than 60% of colleges reported that the counselor recommendation had at least ‘moderate importance’ in admissions decisions. The article explores the fairness and validity of letters of recommendation. However, one thing is for certain: they will continue to be used in the application process. 

So, it is worth understanding how to secure strong college recommendation letters. Due to COVID-19, standardized testing has taken a back seat and some high schools are resorting to pass/fail grades. Therefore, letters of recommendation may matter even more in the admissions process, especially at more selective schools.

Let’s take a look at the times when a letter of recommendation for college admission can play an even more important role in college admission decisions.

When might a letter of recommendation for college matter most?

A few scenarios can play out where your letter of recommendation for college could be a deciding factor in an admission decision. Firstly, at highly selective schools, where each component of the application process counts, this may very well be the case. Let’s say for instance the admissions committee is deciding between two candidates. Both applicants have similar profiles in terms of academic interests, extracurricular involvement, test scores (if applicable), GPA, and curriculum. A strong letter of recommendation for college admission just may be the deciding factor.

college recommendation letter

In a second scenario, let’s take a less selective school with a truly holistic admissions process. A candidate might seem like an average student, but a strong letter of recommendation for college might show admissions how the student excels beyond grades. A strong letter of recommendation might motivate an admissions officer to take a chance on that candidate.

The deciding factor

Lastly, a common scenario at selective schools is one in which a candidate may be on the cusp. Academically, they aren’t strong enough for a definite offer of admission, so the decision can go either way. That’s when a recommendation letter for college or a personal essay can really make all the difference. A strong combination of the two can provide that boost admissions officers need to settle on a decision to admit.

At the end of the day, while a required recommendation letter for college isn’t the end-all be-all in the college application process, these letters can play an important role in the final decision. They are a third-party testament to your ability to excel. This insight can be an important addition to your college application packet. As such, it’s best to ensure your letters are as strong as possible. You’ll see an example of that in our college recommendation letter sample.

Asking for a recommendation letter for college: Things to know

Now that we’ve explained the basics of the letter of recommendation for college admission, let’s get into some more detail. We’ll even look at a sample college recommendation letter later on to give you a clear idea of what these letters look like!

Check out this step-by-step guide to the process, and keep reading to see our college recommendation letter sample later in this guide.

Who should I ask for a letter of recommendation for college?

This is probably the most important question you will ask yourself as you begin to think about your college recommendation letters. Deciding who should write your letter of recommendation for college admission requires careful consideration. It sounds a bit transactional, but you should take inventory of your teachers early in your junior year. The college application process requires planning, so you need to assess every step of the way. Be intentional about building strong relationships with your teachers with your letter of recommendation for college in mind.

Do you already know what particular school, major, or program you will be applying to? If so, you will certainly want to ask a teacher in the appropriate subject. If two letters are required, we suggest one letter of recommendation for college from a math or science teacher and another recommendation letter for college from a humanities teacher. Our college recommendation letter sample below is from a math teacher, so the best contrasting letter would be an English or history teacher. 

Junior-year teachers are best

Junior year teachers are ideal candidates to write your letter of recommendation for college admission. This is because they are the last ones to have taught you for a full year before the application process, and your classes are more rigorous. If you are lucky enough to have a junior year teacher that you had in previous years, that could certainly be an advantage. Either way, make sure to forge relationships with your teachers throughout your junior year. Let them know your interests, go to see them during their office hours, and be an active participant in class discussions.

Do you have the opportunity to work with one of your teachers outside of your class? Perhaps your history teacher advises the Yearbook committee, or your calculus teacher advises the Black Student Association. It’s a good idea to join the clubs your teachers advise so they can get to know you better outside of the classroom. Of course, these should be activities that you’re genuinely interested in.

Counselor recommendations

In addition to the teachers you will ask for a letter, your school counselor will also submit a letter of recommendation for college. This letter of recommendation for college admission will typically provide an overview of your years as a high school student. It will discuss your academics, extracurricular involvement and impact, as well as your personal traits and growth throughout the years. For that reason, even if you do work with an outside advisor (such as one of CollegeAdvisor.com’s Advisors), it is also important to form a relationship with your school-assigned counselor.  

Your counselor’s recommendation letter for college can help fill in gaps in your application story by providing contextual information. For example, if your GPA suffered your sophomore year due to your parents’/guardians’ divorce or separation, or a death in the family, your counselor can include that information. For some information, such as medical conditions, your counselor will require written consent to include said information in your letter of recommendation for college.

Some colleges and universities will allow you to submit a supplemental letter of recommendation for college admission. The amount will vary by school, but one is typically enough.

This letter could come from:

  • Coaches
  • Supervisors
  • Religious mentors
  • Community leaders
  • Research advisors
  • Band teachers
  • Employers

You will want the person writing your supplemental recommendation letter for college to provide a unique perspective different from your other letters. A word of caution: be sure to check the individual college’s policy on the submission of a supplemental letter of recommendation for college admission. Not all schools welcome them, so do not have an additional letter of recommendation for college sent if they specify that it is not wanted.

Keep reading to see a favorite college recommendation letter sample of ours!

letter of recommendation for college

How to ask for a letter of recommendation for college?

You should try to ask for a college recommendation letter face-to-face rather than over email. If possible, ask your potential recommenders in person or ask to set up a meeting online. Understand that your teachers can decline your request to have them write a letter of recommendation for college. However, teachers know about the process of writing a recommendation letter for college and will be open to writing one for you. 

One important thing to do ahead of time when asking for a college recommendation letter is to prepare a resume and a list of key extracurricular activities and awards to give your potential recommenders. This will make their job much easier! They’ll know exactly what they should be highlighting as they write your letter. As you’ll see below in our sample Harvard recommendation letter, the student’s recommender lists her extracurriculars in the letter. This helps paint a more well-rounded picture of the student for admissions officers. 

Verify in the portal

Once you’ve confirmed who your recommenders will be, you will need to verify them through your application portal. For example, on the Common App, you invite the recommender to write you a letter by putting their email into the recommendation section of the application. The recommenders will receive a notification and be able to upload their letter of recommendation for college admission directly to the application portal. 

Looking for more information on how to ask for a letter of recommendation for college admission? Check out this article. And, keep reading to see us analyze a strong college recommendation letter sample. 

When should I ask for a college recommendation letter?

We cannot stress enough the importance of respecting your teachers’ time when asking for a letter of recommendation for college admission. While you should ask four weeks in advance at minimum, we advise asking in May or June before the end of the school year. Many teachers will use their free time during the summer to write college recommendation letters, so the earlier the better. 

college recommendation letter deadline

You don’t want to be the student asking your teachers for a letter of recommendation for college admission just days before the application deadline; your teachers have enough to juggle. Ask your teachers in person if possible, and understand that they can decline.

What is the deadline for teachers to submit college recommendation letters?

If you are applying to schools with a November deadline, your teachers and counselor will generally submit your letters by then. Likewise for applications with a January deadline.

A letter of recommendation for college admission can generally come in after the deadline, within reason. Sometimes your college counselor will continue to submit information on your behalf throughout the cycle if necessary. What matters is that your application is submitted by the deadline. For schools with rolling admissions, your application will not be reviewed until it is complete.

What can I do as a sophomore/junior to ensure a good college recommendation letter?

The best thing to do to ensure a good letter of recommendation is to form relationships with your teachers. You can accomplish this by coming to class prepared so that you can answer questions and also ask questions. That said, you will want to make sure you consistently complete your homework and class assignments on time. 

You can set yourself apart by contributing to class discussions, respecting your peers, and getting along with your teachers. You can also show leadership by volunteering to help out in class and take the lead on group projects. You’ll want to identify teachers you trust and can ask for help in order to build relationships with your teachers. Additionally, you’ll also want to get to know your teachers and allow them to get to know you. In fact, you’ll see in our college recommendation letter sample how one student set herself apart for all four years of high school. 

For more information on how to get a great recommendation letter for college, check out this article

Letter of Recommendation for College: Form and Function

Now, we’ll go into detail about what the college recommendation letter should look like, what it should contain, and how many letters you should aim for. Keep reading for our analysis of a college recommendation letter sample as well. 

college recommendation letter

How long should a college recommendation letter be?

The standard length of a college letter of recommendation is one page. Some teachers may write a bit more or a bit less in a letter of recommendation for college. But expect approximately a page worth of content. Below, you’ll see our sample college recommendation letter is one full page, single-spaced.  

What should a college recommendation letter include?

A strong recommendation letter for college will provide key details that are not obvious from the rest of your application. In fact, you will see exactly what we mean below in the college recommendation letter sample. While you may have a strong academic profile, a letter of recommendation for college admission can provide contextual information. Information such as: your journey in that particular class; insight into how you think; how you treat your classmates; your relationship with your teacher; and how you contribute to the class. That’s information that a simple letter grade cannot provide.

Thinking beyond the “A”

And speaking of grades, you don’t have to ask teachers whose classes you earned an A in to write your letters. Sometimes the strongest letters can come from teachers whose class you didn’t ace — that’s not always the end result of hard work, after all. A strong letter can attest to the commitment you made to do well. You might have met the teacher outside of class, seen a tutor, or asked for additional resources to better grasp the material. What admissions committee wouldn’t appreciate a teacher speaking to your resilience and work ethic? Admissions officers aren’t looking for perfection, but they are looking to form the ideal class of students who can thrive academically.

Wondering about writing a recommendation letter for college from the teacher’s perspective? Check out this guide from MIT about what they like in a letter. Looking to read a college recommendation letter sample? We’ll be analyzing a very strong sample college recommendation letter below!

Who should my teachers address the college recommendation letters to?

Each letter of recommendation for college admission can simply be addressed “To whom it may concern,” as they are not written for specific colleges. Or, see our college recommendation letter sample for how to start a letter. 

How many letters of recommendation for college?

Usually, you will need two letters of recommendation. We suggest you get one recommendation letter for college from a STEM teacher, and one recommendation letter for college from a humanities or social sciences teacher. This helps to show colleges that you are a well-rounded student.

However, if you are applying for a specific program or major, for example any very competitive engineering programs, you may want to instead get a college recommendation letter from both a math teacher and a science teacher. Our college recommendation letter sample is from a math teacher, so if that student were applying for engineering, she may want to get a second college recommendation letter from a science teacher.

Some colleges allow you to submit more than two recommendation letters. It may be helpful to check out schools on your college list ahead of time so you know whether to ask for a third recommendation letter for college. 

Supplemental letter of recommendation for Harvard

For example, our sample letter below is a Harvard recommendation letter. Although you only need two Harvard recommendation letters, the college will accept a supplemental Harvard recommendation letter. A third Harvard recommendation letter can help the admissions committee to see an additional part of your background or personality. You can touch on things not already covered in your application or first two Harvard recommendation letters.  

However, do not think that every additional Harvard recommendation letter that you send will subsequently increase your chances of admission. In fact, sending too many additional Harvard recommendation letters may make the admissions office wary of accepting you. Knowing when enough is enough is key.

Now, let’s check out a sample college recommendation letter. This college recommendation letter sample will provide you with a concrete example of what these letters should look like. And, it helped Jennifer gain acceptance into Harvard!

College Recommendation Letter Sample

The moment you’ve been waiting for: a real college recommendation letter sample. Below, we’ll discuss what makes this a strong college recommendation letter sample, and how you can get a similarly strong college recommendation letter. This sample letter is actually a real Harvard recommendation letter that helped one student gain admissions Harvard University.

college recommendation letter sample

The above college recommendation letter sample is a strong example of a good college recommendation letter. We can break this Harvard recommendation letter down into three parts: the student’s academic background, specific examples of the student’s high achieving behavior, and the student’s extracurricular background. The recommender closes out the letter by offering an overall endorsement of the student. Now, let’s dive into the details of this sample college recommendation letter. 

The letter provides context

This college recommendation letter sample begins by offering context for Jennifer as a student and how the recommender knows Jennifer. This demonstrates to admissions officers why the recommender is qualified to endorse Jennifer as a candidate for admissions; Jennifer was a past student in two of the recommender’s extremely challenging courses. 

It highlights academic accomplishments with examples

The first paragraph of this sample college recommendation letter focuses on Jennifer’s academic accolades. She took AP Calculus freshman year of high school, then moved on to take a college level course in Multivariate Calculus as only a junior in high school. 

This college recommendation letter sample also mentions Jennifer’s successes on the AP exams, not only in math courses, but in AP Computer Science and AP History as well. Finally, this college recommendation letter sample details that Jennifer has taken multiple classes at the college level. All of this is extremely impressive, and we’re only on the first paragraph of this college recommendation letter sample!

In the next paragraph of this sample college recommendation letter, the recommender discusses specifics of Jennifer’s work that were outstanding. These specific examples back up the claims made in the above paragraph: Jennifer is a unique and brilliant student. 

Describes excellence outside the classroom

Finally, this college recommendation letter sample discusses Jennifer’s accomplishments outside of the classroom. This is always helpful for a recommender to mention in a letter of recommendation for college admission. It emphasizes that Jennifer is well-rounded and that her recommender took the time to get to know her outside of the classroom space. As we mentioned before, you can provide your recommender with a list of key extracurriculars and accomplishments. That way, like in this Harvard recommendation letter, your recommender can address the many facets of your high school career!

This sample college recommendation letter specifically highlights Jennifer’s success in mathematical courses. However, it also talks more broadly about Jennifer’s involvement in other courses and extracurriculars. It’s no wonder this Harvard recommendation letter helped earn Jennifer admission into the college. In fact, it really contributed depth and detail to her application. A college recommendation letter like this college recommendation letter sample would be a huge asset to an application!

College Recommendation Letters: Additional FAQs

Now that we’ve gone through a sample college recommendation letter, you should have a pretty clear idea of what a letter of recommendation for college admission looks like. Below, we’ll answer remaining questions you may have about getting a letter of recommendation for college admission. 

college recommendation letter

Can a college recommendation letter be from a family member?

No. A family member cannot write a letter of recommendation for college on your behalf. You could have a mentor or a boss write a recommendation letter for college, but they should not be related to you. 

Will I be able to read my college recommendation letter?

Your teachers will typically submit your letter of recommendation for college admission to your school counselor. From there, it gets uploaded to the platform your school uses such as Naviance or MaiaLearning, from which your counselor will submit your supporting documents to the colleges you’ve selected.

Typically, students must sign a FERPA waiver when they request their letters of recommendation for college. This agreement states that you waive the right to view your recommendation letter for college admission. 

How do I know if my college recommendation letter is good?

The quality of a recommendation letter for college can vary depending on the teacher writing it. Not all teachers are wordsmiths, and that’s ok. What matters most is the content, which is why it’s important to forge those teacher connections and choose recommenders who know you and your abilities best. If a teacher feels that they would not be the best person to write a solid recommendation on your behalf, they may decline your offer.

Letter of Recommendation for College- Final Thoughts

We hope this guide has provided a comprehensive explanation of the college recommendation letter process. We hope you also gained a better sense of what a strong ​​college recommendation letter sample looks like. Remember that not all letters of recommendation will be exactly like the above college recommendation letter sample. So, you shouldn’t compare your successes to the student in the college recommendation letter sample. You are you, and that’s the greatest advantage in the college admissions process!

Find recommenders who understand you, and be sure to ask for a college recommendation letter far before the deadline. Be prepared to provide recommenders with a list of extracurriculars, as the student in our college recommendation letter sample did. Your personal essay (if you’ve written it) may also be helpful for recommenders to see. Any additional information you can provide will be helpful for your teachers. Like in our college recommendation letter sample, you want to seem a well-rounded, unique, and hard working student. 

For more information on the college recommendation letter process, check out this Common App article. Good luck!

This informational article was written by CollegeAdvisor.com Admissions Experts and former Admissions Officers. Didn’t see your question on the list? Get help writing your college essay from our talented team of advisors and other CollegeAdvisor.com Admissions Experts, register with CollegeAdvisor.com today.