What Is a Letter of Recommendation and How Do You Ask for One?

by Ashley Eneriz

When it comes to applying to college, it’s easy to get bogged down in the numbers game. Test scores, grade point averages, and class ranks may seem like the most important factors, but they only tell part of your story. What about the qualities that can’t be quantified?

That’s where recommendation letters come in. A recommendation letter is like a window to your soul: it provides a glimpse into your character, strengths, and potential. So, what is a letter of recommendation, and how can you ensure it boosts your college application?

What Is a Letter of Recommendation?

Ideally, the person who writes your recommendation letter knows you well and can vouch for your abilities. This letter isn’t just a laundry list of accomplishments but a story that showcases your passions, resilience, and unique perspective on the world.

College admissions teams receive many applications. Letters of recommendation are essential to the college application process because they provide insight into what makes you you. Perfect grades and other accomplishments, like being the captain of your sports team, don’t tell an admissions officer how well you’ll fit into the college’s culture or how you envision your impact on the world’s future.

Who Should You Ask for a Letter of Recommendation?

When selecting who to ask for a recommendation letter, think beyond the obvious choices. Your favorite teacher or coach may be able to speak to your abilities, but they’ll likely be swamped with requests at the end of the school year. So ask them, but also ask your boss from a summer job, your volunteer coordinator, or your youth pastor. These individuals may have a different perspective on your skills and talents and can provide a more well-rounded picture of who you are as a person.

Joseph Bentz, PhD, an English professor at Azusa Pacific University, explained that many students ask for a recommendation letter from someone they deem important. However, unless this person knows you well, this may result in a vague, generic letter.

What Information Do You Need to Provide?

When asking for a letter, be sincere and clear. Share why you’re excited about the college you’re applying to and how their letter can help. Give your recommenders plenty of time to write the letter—ideally at least a month before the application deadline. To support their process, provide a list of your accomplishments, your resume, and a brief overview of your goals and aspirations. If they’ll need to send the letter directly to the school via mail, provide an addressed and stamped envelope.

Follow up about a week before the deadline as a courtesy reminder and to make sure they have everything they need from you. Once they submit your letter, remember to thank them for their time and effort.

How Many Recommendation Letters Do You Need?

Quality trumps quantity when it comes to letters of recommendation. Rather than bombarding the admissions office with a stack of generic letters, aim for a couple of well-written letters from individuals who can attest to who you are outside of your grades and accomplishments.

In general, most colleges will require or suggest one to three letters of recommendation. Be sure to carefully review the guidelines for each application. While colleges won’t set specific rules on who your letters should be from, it’s a good idea to ask for letters from people who can speak to different areas of your life. For example, you might want to ask an employer or volunteer director, a coaching assistant or music teacher, and a school teacher to give the college board a thorough look into your professional, extracurricular, and academic lives.

To be safe, request one more letter than you actually need. This will provide a buffer in case one of your writers gets too busy or misses the deadline.

APU Is Here to Help

A recommendation letter can be a powerful tool in your college application process. If you’re still unsure where to start or what your college requires, contact the school directly for support and guidance. APU’s admissions representatives are available to answer your questions and help you understand the admission requirements so you can apply with confidence.