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Understanding Letters of Recommendation

Applying to college can be overwhelming, confusing and mysterious. Given so many different components of what’s required (or considered “optional”) and keeping up with all of the deadline dates, it’s important to better understand how some of these items submitted really factor into the decision-making process. Prospective college students need to feel in control of the application process, empowered through knowledge and sound advice. Letters of recommendation(s) can bolster an applicant and here’s how.


A letter of recommendation has always been part of the admissions process, but in the age of COVID-19 the importance is elevated. Most recommendation letters are brief, formal statements that highlight positive qualities and explain why the candidate will be successful in the college environment. Most universities use letters of recommendation partially because they can’t host sit down interviews with all of the applicants individually. These letters provide information about the student from teachers who have supervised them. These recommendation letters combined with the rigor and grade point average on a student’s high school transcript, along with the resume, personal statement and supplemental essays create a picture that gives the university a chance to learn who the student is and predict who’s likely to be successful at their college.

Letters of recommendation help round out your transcript from just an academic overview to look into the character or heart and drive of the student. These letters provide insight into what you are like as a student and person from someone who has worked closely with you during your high school career. Now, more than ever before, because of COVID-19, teacher recommendations bring credibility and context to the college admissions officers in making their decisions. The key to maximizing the effectiveness of teacher recommendation letters is the personal connection. Amid COVID-19, many colleges are specifically looking at the letters of recommendation to know that the students care about more than just their grades but also care about relationships, networking and making a difference in their communities. In this time of change, including colleges implementing test-optional policies for admission, letters of recommendation mean more than ever before.


One of the main questions from students is “Who should I ask to write my recommendation letters?”. The answer is different for everyone but remember that relevancy matters! For example, if you are trying to get into a computer science program, the best teachers to ask would be the teachers who taught your computer science classes. They will have the most pertinent information to give the university about their experiences with you and growth they have seen in you, specifically in the field you are wanting to study.

Another example would be if you were applying to a nursing program, your target would be your science teachers because they are able to speak to specific qualities that would make you an excellent candidate for that program. Other options for recommendation letters could include teachers who know you outside of the classroom setting (a coach, a drama teacher or perhaps a club sponsor) who can speak to your strengths and weaknesses. The most important aspect is for the adults you choose to be enthusiastic about writing these letters for you.

Also keep in mind that some highly selective colleges will ask for at least one of your letters to come from a core teacher and some will ask for two! These are the teachers that selective colleges want to hear from the most. They are also more likely to be familiar with how to write these letters of recommendations and what colleges are looking for in these letters.


Beyond teachers who teach subjects related to your intended major, it is essential to develop personal connections with adults involved in your education. This is not necessarily limited to teachers but could also be advisors for your extracurricular clubs and activities, coaches, and other staff members who helped in the organizations you were a part of. Having that personal connection will help prove to your applied universities you were involved in a variety of areas and interests and that you have a sense of community. Having adults who can write about these connections and the growth they have seen will boost your admissions file in an authentic way, showcasing who you are as a person as well as a student.

One difference from year’s past is that you might be asking teachers who you have had more interaction with. Sophomore teachers can be a good choice especially for Class of 2022. Some colleges have even indicated that senior year teachers are fine, but if you are applying early action/early decision that may not be the best choice.


Once you have decided who you want to write your letters of recommendation, it is important to ask well in advance so they have enough time to compile your letter. The ultimate time to submit requests for these letters would be late spring or early summer of your junior year. Some teachers only agree to write a certain number of letters and some want the summer months to complete those letters. In addition, you need to provide information to the teachers who will be writing this letter: items include relevant academic experiences, reasonings for selecting certain colleges, major of choice at these colleges, and DEADLINES, particularly if you are planning to submit early action/early decision. Also be specific as to why you chose this teacher to write these letters. Tell the teacher what you gained from their class, what you think you contributed in their class and your most meaningful experience in their class(es). The more time you give them, the more likely you are to get a well-written and elaborate letter, as opposed to a rushed, generic letter. Keep in my mind that most of these adults are getting requests from multiple students so it is very important to respect them and their time by letting them know you are requesting a letter within these recommended timeframes.


When admissions officers are in the process of evaluating potential students, they will be looking at “the hard factors” (such as rigor, grades, test scores, GPA) along with “the soft factors” (like your personal statement and supplemental essays, extracurriculars, activities list and recommendation letters). Letters of recommendation are vitally important to help the university get a better and more all-around picture of their potential students. If you are confused on who to ask for recommendation letters, or how best to complete the profile that you are sending to your potential university, you can reach out to your high school guidance counselor or seek the assistance of professional college consultants.

Throughout your academic and professional career, references and recommendations are going to be crucial to advancing you further, whether that be academically or professionally. It is important early-on to learn who and how to ask certain figures in your life to put in a good word for you. The first time this situation may arise for many students is when their chosen university is asking for letters of recommendation.

In summary, here are the five ways to ensure a strong recommendation letter, especially amidst the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • Form connections BEYOND the classroom experience

  • Have a list of adults you can go to who can VOUCH FOR YOUR CHARACTER and ACADEMIC PROWESS

  • Communicate with your teachers EARLY-ON in the application process (late-spring of your junior year)

  • BE PERSONAL in your requests and make sure to give adequate information to those writing your letters

  • Look at the big picture, to ensure the profile being submitted as your application portrays a well-rounded, complete profile of YOU

NOTE TO PARENTS: While it is integral for you to be a part of this process with your student, your role is to provide support and, in many cases professional guidance. It is NOT your role to write or complete any of the college application. Not only is it unethical, but the admissions officers will KNOW if the writings have the voice of a high school student. Instead become the biggest cheerleader and encourager for your student, helping create confidence in their abilities.

Ask for Help

College Planning in Austin, Texas doesn’t have to be complicated! Access College America is a National Provider for Guidance with College Planning. We have always worked with our families virtually to help students with the right college fit. Our advantage is a holistic approach to helping your student determine their strengths, weaknesses, and interests right from the time they begin high school. Learn more about our college planning services. Prepare. Apply. Achieve.


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