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]

Choosing Your Courses for the Next Year

Choosing Your Courses for the Next Year

Soon, many sophomore and junior students must make choices about their courses for next year. We know the admission process at very selective colleges is based, above all, on your academic performance, and if your grades are not what the college wants to see, your chances of admission will be limited. But how do your curricular choices play out in that process?

Ideally, your college education should have both vertical depth in a single subject and horizontal breadth across many. Admission officers, especially at the most selective colleges, are trying to gauge whether your high school curriculum is equipping you, as a Harvard brochure on preparing for college described it, “with particular skills and information and … a broad perspective on the world and its possibilities.” In fact, most liberal arts colleges are not really admitting students to a particular major (there are exceptions, of course, mostly in pre-professional fields such as engineering and nursing). Thus, choices you make about your curriculum act as a mirror in which they can see your skill/aptitude for pursuing a particular academic interest, but also your curiosity and breadth of mind.

  • Are you able to jump into challenging courses in your intended major and make good use of the opportunities on offer? Do you have the math training to take on engineering courses, for example? Do you have the analytical and writing skill to do well in a demanding philosophy course?
  • Are you also able and curious to explore beyond your major? Are you flexible enough to see how those “other” ideas might even connect with your field and enrich it? This is as much a practical as a philosophical point. Knowledge is interconnected, and knowing something about statistics, for example, might be very useful to the prospective historian, while a pre-med’s perspective might be shaped by anthropological insights into different cultural assumptions about mind-body connections. In a rapidly changing world, you also don’t know what knowledge the future will require, or which bits of learning will start fading into obsolescence soon after graduation. Your career prospects, therefore, might depend on knowing how to learn, how to analyze critically, and how to communicate your great ideas, whether about a product you are developing or about a public policy you are promoting. You may well have developed some of these skills outside your major!

What does this mean for the courses you should choose in high school, especially if you intend to apply to selective colleges?

  • Don’t specialize in high school – if you are mostly not being admitted to a major as a first year, then the fact that you avoided, for example, social science/humanities courses in high school because you intend to study data science, might be a red flag. Note that MIT and Harvey Mudd require applicants to have letters of recommendation from both a STEM teacher AND a humanities/social science one!
  • Don’t choose courses because they might be easier, especially if you hope to apply to very selective colleges. Experienced admission officers know that a one-semester government class is likely not going to challenge you as much as AP US History, and that all IB math courses are not equally demanding. As Yale advises its applicants, “Pursue your intellectual interests, so long as it is not at the expense of your program’s overall rigor or your preparedness for college. Be honest with yourself when you are deciding between different courses. Are you choosing a particular course because you are truly excited about it and the challenge it presents, or are you also motivated by a desire to avoid a different academic subject?”
  • Choose a course load that will show preparation in a broad academic core, because you will learn important skills and perspectives in each:
    • History gives students a better understanding of how the past shapes the present and what is distinctive about our own moment. A rigorous economics course might do the same.
    • English will help you write better in a global language and think more critically, while literature gives insight into other lives in different times and places.
    • Foreign languages facilitate your access to a global world and to cultures that are not your own. Whether you want to be a businessperson or a physicist, being able to communicate with others and imagine different ways of being and thinking is essential.
    • Mathematics not only allows you to balance your checkbook, but also to grasp new scientific discoveries, figure out the economic implications of environmental change, and understand a government’s trade policies. In short, mathematics equips you for modern life.
    • Science, in a time when political freedom and environmental health are threatened by false facts and viral conspiracy theories, allows you to analyze scientific concepts and understand their consequences, and think creatively about technology.
  • Finally, choose the right rigor for you. Students often ponder whether colleges care most about grades or about rigor. The stock answer is, of course, both. And if you aspire to ultra-selective colleges, this is good advice and a healthy reality check about your chances of admission. But it might not be the most useful advice for every student. NACAC, the national admission organization, counsels you to, “take the most challenging courses that are available and appropriate for you.” So, choose the toughest courses in which, with hard work, you can succeed, and then commit yourself to get as much from them as you can.


No, it’s not fair!

No, it’s not fair!

Every year commentators call on new superlatives to describe the plummeting admit rates at selective colleges. Beset by a growing sense of anxiety about their chances of admission to increasingly rejective colleges, students cast around for explanations in a process that feels increasingly out of their control. “It is not fair,” they say.

They are right, of course, if by fair one means a straightforward, linear application process that rewards clearly defined accomplishments and penalizes equally defined lapses. In fact, college admission has never been “fair” in that sense. After all, how is it fair when some students find that application process easier to navigate than other equally accomplished students, because they have well-educated parents familiar with it? Or when a wealthy family can trade influence and donations for a place at a very selective college? Or when some families can afford a great college education without breaking the bank, while many others, disproportionally students of color, will graduate with crushing debt, if at all?

Perhaps the reason why we want to cast the process within that fair/unfair binary is that it puts the focus on individual students and what they have done and achieved. That allows for a sense of control – if I know that doing X will achieve Y, it becomes within my reach. Doing so, though, misses a very important reality about college admission: it is not simply, or even mostly, about individual students. Rather, it is about the institutional needs of the college.

Listening to families talk, one might assume that an admission office IS the college. But, in reality, the former is simply one piece (albeit an important one!) within a larger institutional whole. As such, it is subject to myriad demands and needs from all corners of that bigger edifice. Does the college’s well-known touring orchestra need a new harpist? Has the anthropology department expanded and would therefore like to see a few more prospective anthropologists? Is the university keen to maintain its status as a liberal arts institution rather than a technical school? Can the institution compete with private industry, and its much higher wages, for enough accomplished computer scientists and biochemists to teach the vast army of STEM applicants? Does the public institution need to accept more out-of-state students because its own state government fails to adequately fund it?

Colleges will address these challenges in many ways. But undergraduate admission is one very significant tool with which to do so. Does this make its admission policies and decisions unfair? It will surely feel so to very diligent high school students who did whatever was asked of them to become a strong candidate and still find themselves turned away by very selective institutions. Their disenchantment is fed by many admission offices that insist that their lack of transparency, even about basic information such as admit rates, is meant to benefit students. (With Penn, Cornell and Princeton joining Stanford in refusing to reveal their admit rates, a shout-out to those folks, like Andy Borst at Illinois and Rick Clark at Georgia Tech, who are working to help pull the curtain back and allow families to see them at work.)

At a moment when higher education is under attack from multiple directions in American society, blunt honesty might be the best marketing strategy of all! Meanwhile, students might want to ponder the fact that when admission officers talk about “holistic” – that magic fig leave of admission speak – the whole in question refers as much to the institution of which an admission office is merely one cog as it does individual students and their contributions.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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