Letters of Recommendation, Part 1

This two-part post will help you understand more about how colleges use teacher and counselor letters of recommendation in the college admission process.  In Part 1, we’ll give you some details about how letters of recommendation work; Part 2 addresses frequently asked questions about letters of recommendation in college applications.   

Colleges have changed the way they review applications over the past several years.  Test scores play a much smaller role than they have in the past, which means the transcript, extra-curricular activities, essays and letters of recommendation are MORE important than ever!

Colleges request letters of recommendation because they provide the story behind the courses and grades listed on the student’s transcript – they give specific information about the student’s personality characteristics, strength of character, and work ethic, especially in the classroom.  

There are a few different types of letters of recommendation:

  • The teacher letter of recommendation provides the colleges with insight into your academic abilities, strengths, and accomplishments.  Teachers may write about specific interactions or instances in which you demonstrated intellectual curiosity, improvement, collaborative skills, etc.  Your teachers can share what kind of student you’ll be – and keep in mind that colleges consider themselves academic institutions FIRST!  So how you interact with teachers and students and your success in your academic courses will help the colleges evaluate if you are a good academic fit for their institution. 
  • The counselor letter of recommendation helps colleges understand you in the context of your entire class. High schools vary widely in terms of course rigor and student body.  The counselor letter helps colleges evaluate your grades and other accomplishments with a greater understanding of what’s offered at your school.  Counselors usually submit their LOR along with the school profile — a summary of information about the school’s student body, course offerings, grading system and sometimes college acceptances and matriculations (more on that here). The counselor letter may also explain discrepancies in your transcript — the reason for a dip in GPA, for example. They may also explain the positive impact you’ve had on your school community.
  • Some colleges allow students to submit letters of recommendation from outside recommenders, like a coach, an arts teacher, an employer or internship supervisor.  In the Common App, these are referred to as “other recommenders,” and you’ll invite them directly from the Common App, which will e-mail your recommender a link to fill out the form.

How to get a great letter of recommendation

You should plan on asking two academic teachers in spring of your 11th grade years.  It’s best if you ask 11th grade teachers (more on this in the FAQs).  Some teachers may have a form they request students to complete.  If they don’t, make it as easy as possible for them to present a positive, unique, and individualized recommendation for you.  Give them:

  • A resume of your activities (from 9th grade on)
  • A list of your current classes
  • A reminder of the class(es) you took with them, your grades, a specific project (or two!) you did in their class, and what you learned the most from their class and/or their teaching style.  This will help the teacher recall specific characteristics or anecdotes about you.
  • A brief synopsis of your goals and interests, both inside and outside the classroom.

Some schools provide forms/brag sheets for students to fill out.  If your school doesn’t have a standard template for this, feel free to use this one.

https://open.spotify.com/embed/episode/6Kd1XsrDCkfFaz8gRz1j33

The podcast above was hosted by the Admission Office at Whittier College.  Both a school counselor and a college admission counselor (the person who reads application files) share their thoughts on the importance of letters of recommendation, as well as some tips to help you get stronger letters!

In the second part of this post, we’ll address some questions you may have about letters of recommendation you may need to obtain for your college applications.


Evelyn Jerome-Alexander is the founder of Magellan College Counseling.  She holds a Bachelor’s degree from Johns Hopkins, a Master’s degree from George Washington University, and a Certificate in College Counseling (with distinction) from UCLA.  Evelyn was asked in 2019 to serve as an instructor for UC Berkeley’s online College Admissions Advising courses and is a member of IECA (professional member), HECA and WACAC.

Michelle Silbernagel, who works with Evelyn at Magellan, has a Master’s in sociology and worked in research, marketing, writing, and editing, as well as in higher education as the Director of Research and Planning at Seattle Community Colleges District Office, before she joined the college counseling community.. Read more about Michelle here.

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