Recommendation Letters and the College Application

Recommendation Letters and the College Application

As stressful as it is to write college application essays, at least the effort gives students a sense of control, of making a case for themselves by discussing what matters to them and what they believe makes them distinctive and wonderful. In contrast, letters of recommendation are written by teachers about students, who are expected to waive access to them.

By being proactive and thoughtful, though, students can still have significant input in these important pieces of the application. And they are indeed important. In the 2019 NACAC State of Admission report, most deans of admission put teacher recommendations in the same category of importance as application essays. But the number of required letters, and the guidance as to who should write them, will vary by college. Selective colleges will want to see one or two teacher letters in addition to the counselor letter, and they will usually ask that the letters come from junior or senior year teachers in core academic subjects (English, social science, math, science, and foreign language). Stanford, for example, suggests that you ask a sophomore teacher only if the course was an advanced one.

Some colleges also recommend that you opt for a balanced view of your performance by submitting both a STEM and a non-STEM letter. Indeed, a few schools – MIT, CalTech, Harvey Mudd and such – require such balance. But elsewhere, securing robust, personal letters should be your top priority. Of course, a breadth of intellectual interests may be a particular strength of yours, and you should try to reflect that quality in your choice of letters. But asking teachers who barely know you for a letter of recommendation, purely for the sake of such balance, seems risky.

Similarly, if your application reflects a particularly strong academic interest, whether in languages, engineering, or social justice, you can amplify the reader’s perception of your engagement with that field by your choice of letters. In fact, an application from a prospective engineer without a letter from a math or physics teacher might well raise questions about the depth of that student’s interest in the field.

Knowing that these letters really do matter to admission officers, what can you do to ensure that yours represent you in ways that will serve you best?

  • Remember that at many colleges, applications pass through committees in school groups – everyone at one high school who applied to that college, one after another. If a teacher knows you only as one of many asking for a LOR, you might end up with the sort of note that will in turn reduce you to one in a crowd of applicants, all remarkably the same. So, choose a teacher with whom you have had opportunity to make some personal connection, perhaps by having conversations about shared interests.
  • In choosing your letter writers, consider what a specific teacher might say about you (and perhaps has said already in a grade report or a parent conference). Can that teacher speak to your love of learning beyond working hard towards a good grade? Can the teacher address how your collaboration supports the learning of your classmates, beyond the fact that you are a pleasure to teach? Can the teacher come up with examples of your intellectual curiosity beyond mere diligence? If the answer is yes, then the teacher’s letter will help you seem distinctive in your role within a classroom community.
  • Make good use of any opportunity to help shape the teacher’s perception of you, and help them represent you best. If the teacher asks you to complete a worksheet in advance, do so thoroughly and thoughtfully with an eye on the language and concepts that you wish them to use in describing you. Think of examples that earned you extra kudos from them for a particularly great job; or discuss sections of a course that challenged you to think a bit deeper.

Given your hard work on other aspects of your application, getting the best possible letters of recommendation deserves your attention. Most teachers work remarkably hard on these to do well by you – don’t forget to thank them! But an experienced admission officer can also easily spot the difference between a good LOR and an exceptional one. Aim for the latter![/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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