Former Admissions Officers Discuss the Importance of Recommendation Letters

Padya Paramita

Former Admissions Officers Discuss the Importance of Recommendation Letters

Letters of recommendation are required by every college to get an understanding of your performance in class beyond your transcript and from the perspective of someone who’s not you. But how important are recommendation letters really? We talked to some of our Former Admissions Officers who have read for schools such as UChicago, Duke, Georgetown, Dartmouth, Johns Hopkins, and Bowdoin among others in order to gauge exactly how crucial recommendation letters are in the admissions process.

Getting To Know You Through the Eyes of Another

Recommendation letters are very important! They serve as the only place in the application where the AO can understand you through another person's perspective. Getting to know you through the eyes of your college counselor and teachers is incredibly valuable when trying to figure out if you'll be a fit for the community and the classroom. We can gather a ton of information about a person through these rec letters that help to frame the rest of your application and provide additional context.” - Former Admissions Officer, Top 10 National University

What a Strong Letter Versus Weak Recommendation Does

Recommendation Letters will always play a role in the admissions process, whether it is to confirm or highlight or explain what the student has put in their application. A strong recommendation can certainly enhance a student’s chances whereas a moderate or weak recommendation can do the very opposite. It is rare that recommendations would be ignored completely, but it does happen when the numbers are large and the admissions competition may not be as competitive or for institutions that mainly rely on numeric factors such as GPA and SAT, although some of them may choose to utilize ratings from the recommendation in their selection process.” - Former Assistant Director of Admissions, Top 20 National University

How Selective Schools View Recommendation Letters

“For the more selective institutions, it is almost guaranteed that the recommendation plays an important role in the admissions process. Often, choosing between exceptional candidates comes down to splitting hairs and the recommendation can prove to be a difference-maker if it is written well, strongly supports the student, and comes from someone who has known the student for a significant period of time.” - Former Admissions Officer, Georgetown University

The Questions They Help Answer

Recommendation letters are very important! They are a way for the admissions officers to get to know what you're like inside the classroom from the teacher's point of view. Are you collaborative, do you exercise your critical thinking skills? Do you take advantage of opportunities in/outside of the classroom? How do you interact with your peers?” - Former Admissions Officer, Top 10 National University

They Show If Your Teacher Really Knows You

“I've seen glowing recommendation letters really tip an admissions decision where essays aren't as differentiating or remarkable. So build those relationships with teachers or other potential letter writers. And teachers aren't mind-readers, so make sure that they are aware of all the cool things that you are doing. Once a teacher has agreed to write a letter for you, send that person a resume and reminders of some specifics about the most distinctive things you have done in their class (presentations, papers, active discussions, etc). “ - Former Admissions Officer, Top 10 National University

Although Most Letters Are Positive, A Personal One Can Make a Difference

“Most recommendation letters are just affirmations of what we already suspect about an applicant from the rest of the application. But a really personal and heartfelt rec can stand out and make a difference! We don't see many bad recommendations.” - Former Admissions Reader, Ivy League School

It Can Depend on the School

“The importance of recommendation letters really depends on the school. Regional admissions officers tend to know which high schools are known for writing certain types of letters and longer isn’t always better. The best letters highlight to the reader that the recommender really knows the student and provides additional insight into the student. Letters can be particularly important when written by a teacher of a class that perhaps the student didn’t do as well in.” - Former Admissions Officer, Top 10 National University

There you have it! Recommendation letters are very important, and even though you don’t directly write them, you must make sure you carefully decide who will write yours. A glowing letter can help boost your application, so don’t miss out on getting to know your teachers and letting them know of all the impressive things you’re up to! To find out more on letters of recommendation, as well as other insights from our former admissions officers, check out the FAO advice tag.

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