College and university admissions committees are looking for evidence that students can make the grade, so to speak, and represent their institutions in the best light. That's why they consider four main pieces of information when coming to that decision: Your high school grade point average, your SAT/ACT scores, your college essay, and your letters of recommendation.
Your high school GPA - along with other important factors like level of coursework taken, class rank, and any extracurricular activities that you've participated in - gives the admissions committee a well-rounded idea of whether you'll continue your high school success on a college campus.
A student's standardized test scores provide some insight into how students compare to their peers in different school districts. Letters of recommendation are far more "qualitative" than the "quantitative" metrics of standardized test scores and grade point average.
Because of this, letters of recommendation are one of the most important considerations for many admissions committees. This is an area that applicants, students, teachers, and admissions counselors should do everything in their power to get right.
Purpose of Letters of Recommendation
Admissions committees are increasingly requesting 2-3 letters of recommendation from applicants because letters of recommendation provide insight into a student's personality, values, seriousness, readiness, and character that a hard-and-fast test score simply can't.
Getting a glowing letter of recommendation from a high school teacher or school counselor who's already obtained a higher degree in the field that you're interested in exploring at college can be a powerful statement in itself. Also make sure that you're following the instructions laid out in the college application. Oftentimes colleges will request that recommendations come from an academic teacher or a school counselor (rather than a coach or employer, for example).
A letter of recommendation is a really unique factor since most other admissions factors - test scores, etc. - are totally within your control. So, how do you go about getting a letter of recommendation that carries real weight and attests to your best qualities?
Requesting Letters of Recommendation
The first thing to do is to assemble your list of match, reach, and safety schools in consultation with your school counselor. Then, determine the admissions cutoff dates for all of those schools. All done? Now that you know your dates, make sure to request a letter no later than one month prior to those cutoff dates. So, for December 15th, make your requests no later than November 15th, but ideally earlier.
So, who should you ask and how should you go about it? Ask teachers who you've known for more than one semester, and preferably since your junior or sophomore year. It's a better testament to your current academic readiness, personality, and character over time than, say, one teacher you've had for a month or two just your senior year. Reminding teachers of work that you completed in their class that best represents your aptitude and providing them with a resume highlighting your accomplishments is a great idea. Chances are that the teacher you chose will write you a glowing letter and speak to what a great job you did in their class.
Waiving your right to glance at the letter of recommendation beforehand and picking someone who you already have a stellar relationship with can greatly increase your chances of getting a letter of recommendation that will blow an admissions committee away.
For more college planning advice, download the Guide to College Planning: Your Roadmap to Planning and Paying for College.