In the previous chapter of the Ultimate College Prep Guide, we discussed how SAT and ACT scores can make your student’s application stand out. But test scores and grades can only show so much about your child, which is why admissions counselors turn to recommendations.

In this chapter we’ll dive deeper into the importance of college recommendation letters and why colleges value them. First, we’ll understand how your student can secure recommendations that showcase who they are outside of just academics. Then, we’ll sketch a timeline that your student can follow to stay ahead of the game and make sure they get their recommendation letters in by the due date.

Here’s what you’ll learn in this chapter:

Are College Recommendation Letters Important?

Recommendation letters help college admissions officers understand your student as a person, beyond the grades and test scores. Admissions officers read recommendations closely and seriously consider what teachers and counselors have to say. But why are these personal—and more subjective—accounts of your student so important?

What admissions officers look for in recommendations

Admissions Dean at Harvard College, William R. Fitzsimmons, stated in an interview with the New York Times that admissions counselors at Harvard and other colleges consider recommendation letters “extremely important.” He said,

Recommendations… can illuminate such personal qualities as character and leadership as well as intellectual curiosity, creativity, and love of learning…. [and] can offer evidence of an applicant’s potential to make a significant difference to a college community and beyond.

When admissions officers read your student’s recommendation they want to understand how your student will contribute to the college community. Officers want to admit students who will bring a love of learning and enthusiasm for their passions, because these students will thrive and inspire others.

Recommendations also help admissions officers understand any hardships or difficulties that your student may have dealt with. These might include:

  • Academic challenges, such as a class outside of your student’s comfort zone
  • Personal challenges, such a divorce or death in the family

A recommendation letter can give context to lower grades, because admissions officers understand that students sometimes encounter extenuating circumstances.

Recommendation letters will likely confirm what is already in your student’s application. But they go beyond your student’s self-advocacy and provide a valuable second perspective.

Who Should Your Student Ask for a Recommendation?

Most colleges will ask for a letter from your student’s counselor and one or two teachers. Your student probably won’t have a choice about whic