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How Important are Letters of Recommendation?

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If you’ve read our CollegeVine blog post “A Step-By-Step Guide to Your Recommendation Letters,” you already know that sorting out your letters of recommendation will be part of your college application checklist. Colleges use teacher recommendations to add a more subjective and personal perspective to their assessment of your qualifications, which can reveal aspects of your personality that don’t always come out on paper.



Since you won’t be able to control the content of recommendation letters, or even to see your recommendations before they’re submitted, this prospect may make you a little nervous. You may be wondering if these recommendations are even important— after all, there are already so many other parts to your college application.


The short answer is yes, recommendations are important, and are among the many factors that colleges look at when making admissions decisions. In this post, we’ll go over which colleges care the most about recommendations, in which situations a recommendation might have the most impact on your recommendation, and exactly how a recommendation—positive or negative—might affect how a college considers your application.


To whom are letters of recommendation more important?


Letters of recommendation tend to be most important when you’re applying to small private colleges and schools which have “holistic” admissions philosophies. These schools are more likely to have the resources and motivation to have their admissions officers look closely at your recommendations.


As you can imagine, the college application season floods colleges with a tremendous amount of data about prospective students. Smaller schools with smaller applicant pools obviously have fewer applications to consider, and are therefore more likely to be able to devote time to reading and assessing your recommendation letters.


If a school has a holistic admissions philosophy, that’s an indication that the school particularly values information about an applicant that paints them as a whole person, not just a series of data points. Recommendation letters are an important tool that these colleges can use to get a personal perspective on your strengths and background. For more information on what “holistic” means in this context, take a look at the CollegeVine blog post Tackling Holistic Admission: A Breakdown of What Colleges Consider.


A compelling recommendation from a teacher who knows you well provides colleges with an assessment of you as a student and person that goes beyond the numbers. Teachers can describe your scholastic ability in a way that’s more detailed than what letter grades provide, and they can also speak to qualities like personal integrity, which are prized by colleges, but may not be fully reflected on your transcript.


For schools with exceptionally competitive admissions processes, letters of recommendation can also become more important. At a very competitive school with a large applicant pool made up of highly qualified high-school students, many applicants will have achieved high grades and major accomplishments, so it’s more difficult for a student to stand out based on academic work alone.


In these cases, recommendations can have a palpable impact on how the college assesses an applicant. Highly competitive schools don’t just want to know that you have succeeded in high school; they want to know whether you have the personal qualities, like intellectual curiosity and dedication, that you’ll need to take advantage of all the opportunities that school has to offer.


To whom are letters of recommendation less important?


Letters of recommendation, especially positive ones, are generally less important when you’re applying to schools with a large number of applicants and/or schools that have limited resources to devote to evaluating applications. However, a negative recommendation may still have some weight even at these schools.


As we’ve mentioned, a real human being has to read and evaluate your recommendation letters, and this represents a monetary cost to colleges. When resources are limited, especially at schools that have large applicant pools, there simply may not be enough staff to thoroughly evaluate multiple letters of recommendation for each and every applicant.


Many schools require applicants to submit at least one or two letters of recommendation from their teachers, but it may be that these letters are only given cursory attention. In this situation, a positive but unremarkable recommendation letter probably won’t make much of a difference either way for your chances of admission. Colleges know that there’s a general social expectation that recommenders will focus on the positive features of the person they’re recommending, so just having a positive recommendation isn’t enough.


A negative recommendation, however, can be much more important, even to colleges with many applicants. Considering that most recommendations are positive, if a recommender goes out of their way to comment upon one of your negative qualities or deficiencies, colleges will be likely to see this as a red flag. We’ll go over more details about how a negative recommendation can affect your application below.


Finally, there are some schools, especially large public schools, which don’t require or accept any letters of recommendation at all. Often, these are schools that not only have a very large number of applicants, but also have especially limited resources with which to evaluate applications.


For colleges that require few or no letters of recommendation, or those that simply don’t consider letters of recommendation to be particularly important, you’ll need to make sure that your good qualities are fully visible in the other parts of your application, such as your essays. While self-promotion is difficult for some applicants, it’s particularly important when you’re applying to a school that doesn’t ask others to weigh in on your strengths.


If a school you’re interested in has a policy of only accepting a limited number of letters of recommendation (Notre Dame University does this, for instance) or does not accept recommendations at all, you should abide by this policy. Colleges have these policies for a reason, and it’s never a good idea to directly contradict a school’s application procedures.


Submitting additional documents that you were specifically told not to submit won’t do you any good, even if those documents are glowing recommendations; it’s almost certain that no one will ever read them. Plus, the college in question will be forced to wonder whether you simply didn’t notice the instructions, in which case your attention to detail is lacking, or you chose to go against the instructions on purpose, which could reflect poorly on your character.


How can a recommendation help my application?


The recommendations that colleges receive tend to be mostly positive in their content, as teachers and other recommenders are often reluctant to negatively impact a student’s chances of attending college in such a direct way. If a potential recommender is unable to speak positively about you, it’s generally considered most ethical for them to tell you so and decline to write the recommendation, giving you a chance to find another recommender.


In addition to this factor, college applicants generally choose their own recommenders. It’s unlikely that you would choose to ask a teacher to write your recommendation if you didn’t trust that teacher or knew they didn’t hold you in high regard.


Since negative recommendations are so uncommon, colleges will generally expect that students will have positive recommendations. This means that a run-of-the-mill, positive recommendation won’t cause you to particularly stand out as an applicant.


While a generic positive recommendation won’t stand out much, it’s still important that you take your recommendations seriously. There are a number of important facts that a college can glean from a recommendation that’s clearly positive and genuinely enthusiastic about you.


A teacher who knows you and has worked academically with you can provide colleges with a whole range of details about your performance in school, far beyond what your grades reveal. Did you show deep and productive interest in a particular topic? Were you comfortable with constructive criticism of your work? Do you have a special ability—for example, translation—that isn’t readily visible on your transcript? Teachers can speak to these questions and many more.


You can view your recommendations as providing a valuable outsider perspective on your achievements. While part of the college application process involves learning how to present yourself in the best possible way, it’s often difficult for students to successfully appear confident, but not overconfident. Whether you’re worried about overstating or understating your accomplishments, your recommendations give colleges another lens through which to view your background.


In their recommendations, teachers can provide context for the academic and extracurricular information that makes up the bulk of your application. If you win a National Merit Scholarship, for instance, it’s important to know whether your high school regularly produces scholarship winners, or if it hasn’t had a National Merit Scholar in a decade. Many colleges are interested not only in your achievements on their own, but in how you’ve made the best of the opportunities available specifically to you.


More and more these days, personal character is also becoming an important factor in college admissions, and recommendations represents a great way for colleges to get a window into your personal character through the eyes of a trusted adult in your life. A teacher who knows you well can speak not only to your skills in the classroom, but also to the qualities that make you an interesting and unique human being— and a great addition to a college campus.


Remember, at the typical four-year college, campus life is about so much more than what goes on inside the classrooms. Colleges pick their first-year classes with an eye to how they’ll interact within and enrich the campus culture as a whole. Recommendations, with their more personal focus, can be helpful in determining not only what kind of student you are, but what kind of person you are.


How can a recommendation hurt my application?


As we’ve noted, since positive recommendations are the norm, a recommendation that is good but not great won’t add much to your application. Still, it’s an expected part of a solid college application, and if you appear to not be able to find someone who will at least write a basically positive recommendation for you, colleges will be concerned. The lack of a good recommendation can seriously hurt your chances.


Most students won’t need to worry about the possibility of receiving a surprise negative recommendation; if there’s a significant problem between you and a teacher, you probably know about it already. More worrying for the average student is the possibility of receiving a recommendation that is positive, but lukewarm.


Positive but unremarkable recommendations come in a variety of forms. They may be insufficiently enthusiastic, in which case colleges will wonder why you didn’t stand out more to the teacher. They may also be excessively generic, in which case they won’t tell colleges much of interest about who you are and what specific qualities you’ll bring to the campus community.


These recommendations probably won’t hurt you very much in and of themselves, but they do represent a missed opportunity. Recommendations have the potential to pass along a great deal of pertinent information and to reinforce the strengths that you present in other parts of your application, and your application will certainly be weaker if you miss this chance to shore it up with more evidence.


Blatantly negative recommendation letters do crop up now and then, whether because the student had limited options for choosing recommenders, the student misjudged the teacher, or the teacher felt they had a responsibility to inform the college about a major issue (academic or personal) with the student. When they do, they will almost definitely hurt the student’s application significantly.


Since colleges know that negative recommendation letters are uncommon, a negative recommendation will immediately make an admissions officer sit up and take notice. A negative recommendation may not torpedo your chances of acceptance all on its own, but it will cause colleges to regard your application with a more suspicious eye.


You’re in particular danger if a recommender mentions that you’ve had a serious problem at school, but you yourself haven’t reported this issue in the appropriate place on your application. If a college already knows from elsewhere in your application that, for example, you were suspended for a week for fighting, but have since improved your behavior, they’ll be more likely to cut you some slack than if you tried to hide the past suspension.


If you have a major known issue like this on your record, it’s best to discuss the issue with your recommenders in advance. This isn’t about dictating what your recommenders will say about you, but rather knowing what to expect and making sure the recommenders have the necessary information to make an informed statement. Check out our CollegeVine blog posts on “How to Deal with Disciplinary Problems on Your College Application” and “How to Explain Exceptional Personal Circumstances on College Applications” for more information about how to handle an issue of this nature on your application.


Above all, choose your recommenders carefully! If you’ve had academic or personal conflicts or other significant problems with a particular teacher, that teacher is probably not the best person for you to ask for a recommendation. If at all possible, you should choose recommenders who know you well, who have seen examples of your best work, and who you know will speak about you in genuinely flattering terms.


Again, this isn’t about hiding past misdeeds, being dishonest on your application, or trying to dictate the terms of your recommendation letters, none of which you should do. Just like the rest of your college application, it’s about presenting yourself in a good (but still honest) light so as to be a strong candidate for admission.


One last note on recommendations: during the application process, you’ll be asked by college to sign a statement agreeing that you waive the right to look at your recommendation letters. This is referred to as your FERPA waiver, and you are not technically required to agree to this statement in order to submit your application. However, if you choose not to sign it, this can be a significant red flag for colleges.


The privacy that the FERPA waiver provides to your recommenders is essential— it allows them to feel safe writing a truly honest recommendation, which is what colleges need to see. If you choose not to sign the waiver, colleges will wonder if you’re trying to hide something. This makes it extra important that you choose recommenders that you trust to write positive reviews that don’t contain any surprises.


Your signature will also certify that you have not tampered with your recommendation letters. Tampering with your recommendations, just like other forms of dishonesty on your application, will result in an automatic rejection or, if you’ve already been admitted when it’s discovered, in having your admission rescinded.


It may be a little stressful to have a part of your application be so dependent upon someone else’s opinion of you, but ultimately, a good recommendation has the potential to really add to your applicant profile. If you develop relationships and choose your recommenders with care, their words can bolster your application and help colleges see the real you a little more clearly.


Along with the blog post “A Step-By-Step Guide to Your Recommendation Letters,” which we mentioned at the beginning of this post, the CollegeVine blog offers a wealth of other resources you can use to plan out your recommendation strategy. Check out the Recommendation Letters category on the CollegeVine blog for advice on getting a great recommendation, submitting additional recommendations beyond the required number,  and even what to do if your recommender doesn’t meet their submission deadline.

As always, good luck!


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Monikah Schuschu
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Monikah Schuschu is an alumna of Brown University and Harvard University. As a graduate student, she took a job at the Harvard College Office of Financial Aid and Admissions, and discovered the satisfaction of helping students and parents with the often-baffling college admissions process. She also enjoys fiber art, murder mysteries, and amateur entomology.