Many colleges and universities use a holistic approach to the admissions process. Instead of simply looking at test scores and grades, admissions teams want to get a clear picture of the whole applicant. For this reason, you may be asked for supplemental application materials such as goal statements, personal essays, and letters of recommendation.
You likely have heard from your high school instructors that college recommendations are important. This isn’t just something they say to encourage good classroom behavior! Here are a few ways that college recommendation letters are important to your college admissions application:
Speaking to your character
A recommender who knows you well and you have a good rapport with should be able to write a stellar recommendation letter. Since the admissions officer wants to know more about you personally in the holistic selection process, it is helpful to have a recommender who can really speak to your personal qualities that make you a great addition to a college campus. They can address anything from your dedication, trustworthiness, creativity, and perseverance, to your exceptional social skills and friendliness. Encourage your recommender to use specific examples that demonstrate these qualities. After reading about your amazing character, an admissions evaluator will have a hard time denying your application.
Supporting your skills and interests
Many times, you will need to identify your skills, interests, and hobbies in your application, but it is certainly helpful if what you report is corroborated by someone else. If you are applying to an engineering program, your recommender can discuss your keen calculus skills. If you are applying to a social work degree, your recommender can talk about your various volunteer activities in the community, demonstrating that you truly have a passion for your future field of study. Considering a major in the arts? Your recommender can address your passion, creativity, and dedication to your craft. College recommendation letters can address a wide range of interests and skills, which will help the admissions teams at your intended colleges get a better sense of who you are and, hopefully, come to the conclusion that you would be an active, involved member of their campus community.
Assessing classroom behavior
Admissions offices want to know they are accepting students who will be productive and respectful in the classroom, and avoiding students who will cause chaos or discomfort for their peers and faculty. Your high school teachers can provide excellent commentary on your classroom behavior, since they have experienced it first-hand. It is critical that you only ask your teachers for a recommendation if you were a respectful student to them and contributed positively to their class. A recommendation letter reflecting on poor in-class conduct could cost you admission.
Further strengthening your application
You may have an excellent application already; you aced every class, took only honors courses, scored well on the SAT or ACT, and wrote an inspiring personal essay. However, it immensely helps your application to have a third-party, objective, and enthusiastic statement about who you are as a person and a student. A poor, or even apathetic, letter of recommendation could be the nail in your admissions coffin. To avoid this scenario, only select recommenders who you know think highly of you. Be sure to talk to your recommender before he or she starts writing to ensure he or she has enough information to craft a powerful letter that describes clearly who you are and why you should be admitted to your college of choice.
Justifying gaps in academic performance
Sometimes, even great students experience personal or academic hardship. For example, if you experienced a death in the family, undiagnosed learning disability, personal illness, or another emergency that negatively impacted your high school grades, your college recommendation letters can help justify or explain these gaps in academic performance. Recommenders can explain the situation from a sympathetic and supportive stance, while painting the picture for an admissions officer that you are still a good fit for a program or college despite your struggles.
These are just a few of the many reasons college recommendation letters are important to the admissions process. While in high school, try to form quality, meaningful connections and relationships with teachers and staff so you have people willing to write high-quality recommendations for your admissions applications.
Brenna Tonelli is a contributing writer for Varsity Tutors, a live learning platform that connects students with personalized instruction to accelerate academic