How do recommendation letters work?

They’re not very important.

Completing your application to UT requires submitting the application, paying a $75 fee, submitting two essays, and either the ACT or SAT directly from the testing agencies. UT “recommends” that you submit an expanded resume. Subtly, the language they use for recommendation letters is that they are “optional.”

Everyone should submit an expanded resume. Should everyone opt for recommendation letters?

I don’t think so. Frankly, most recommendation letters don’t improve an application. I never came across a file where a letter hurt an applicant. I can think of less than ten times out of the many hundreds of files I reviewed where a recommendation letter improved a student’s score.

I mentioned in another post that essays can often tip a student from an average to an above average, or an excellent to an outstanding score. Recommendation letters rarely serve to tip the balance.


Most recommendation letters don’t add more information. They are simply reiterations of qualities or achievements that reviewers can identify elsewhere – extracurricular activities on resumes, AP courses on a transcript, accomplishments mentioned in an essay. Most letters come off generically even if the letter writer knows the student well. Compelling letters, like essays, are difficult to write even in the best of circumstances.

What makes for effective recommendation letters? On occasion, I came across exceptional letters that helped the student’s application. I can think of at least one file where that student gained admission to an honors program that very likely wouldn’t have happened without their letter writer taking the time to craft an outstanding profile of the student. Recommendation letters, at the very least, should provide new information that isn’t present elsewhere in the application.

Exceptional letters highlight soft skills like tenacity in the classroom, overcoming an injury in sports, an innate curiosity about a particular subject or hobby, and provide a nuance and complexity to an applicant that they wouldn’t be able to do themselves. Letters that illustrate evidence for grit, perseverance, independence, question-seeking, and leadership amongst others could help an applicant receive a stronger score.

Importantly, UT doesn’t care who is writing the letter whether they are an alumni or your dad’s CEO friend. Unless the letter writer has a name on a campus building or a seat in the legislature, it doesn’t make a difference. Even then, those high-level relationships go over the admissions process. Anybody, however, can write an excellent letter whether it is a teacher, clergyperson, coach, Scout leader, musician tutor, or extracurricular activity coordinator.

If you choose to submit a letter, choose someone who knows you well, notify them early, provide them information to get started, and work with them to craft a recommendation that paints you in an interesting light. It is better to have one compelling letter than four mediocre ones. The Purdue OWL offers a detailed resource on recommendation letters.

If you can’t submit an excellent letter, or haven’t asked your letter writer well in advance, it would save everyone time not to put forward any at all.