Recommendations are the only personal yet third-party perspectives colleges get on a candidate.
They function as an independent validation of what the student has said about himself or herself; they can also help shed light on the student’s circumstances, both personal (family problems, for example) and general (how challenging the school generally is; what opportunities were unavailable).
Note: the UCs don’t require any recommendations, with the exception of specific campuses or majors. Because of this, California students are particularly unclear about the real purpose of recommendations, and should attend to the following information very carefully.
3 Types of Recommendation Letters for College
There are three types of recommendations: teacher, counselor and supplementary recommendations.
Each has a different role to play.
Most colleges require two teacher recommendations and one counselor recommendation. The supplementary recommendation is optional, and each school has its own policy for handling such letters. It’s pretty common knowledge among college counselors that the typical recommendation letter has very little influence on the fate of an applicant. Why?
Because most letters are so identical they’re interchangeable. In fact, NYU’s guidelines for teachers writing recommendations states:
[Recommendations] are letters of support…An overly general letter can indicate a certain reserve. For that reason, if a [teacher] feels like they don’t know enough to write a detailed account of that student, or if they have reservations, it is better to decline the student’s request, and have them search out a more suitable recommender.
On the other hand, recommendations stand to provide a more robust understanding of an applicant than can be provided by the application itself. Alisha Couch, Director of Admissions Operation and Transfer Recruitment at Ohio Wesleyan University says,
If it’s done right, [a recommendation] brings the student to life…So much of a college application is just data, and a letter of recommendation can help paint a picture of who a student really is.
Teachers: Letter of Recommendation for College
A thoughtful recommendation letter from a writer who obviously really knows an applicant can make a difference.
While such a letter won’t get an unqualified student into a particular school, it can help distinguish one qualified applicant from a pile of similarly qualified applicants.
What can a student do to maximize his or her chances of securing such a meaningful recommendation?
Here are four general suggestions:
Students should get to know their teachers.
Students should provide teachers with the information they need to write personal letters.
Get to know teachers
One big problem that children from immigrant families particularly have is that they tend to be more quiet and passive in class and don’t seek to establish relationships with adults.
Now if a student gets an A in AP U.S. History but doesn’t participate in class discussions, his or her teacher will probably write a good but generic recommendation about the student’s academic achievement.
Although the letter may contain many genuine compliments about the student’s academic ability, this letter won’t add any information to the student’s profile, because the fact that this student was an able student who worked hard and did well in class would already be evident from the grade he or she received.
By comparison, the student with a B+ in AP U.S. History who, though not the smartest kid in the class, participated actively, went out of his way to help other students and asked thought-provoking questions of the teacher would be more likely to score a memorable recommendation.
The first student might receive a recommendation letter that says, “Sarah is an excellent student who performs well on all of her tests and essays. She is responsible about turning in her homework on time and is generally a high-achieving individual.”
The second student might receive a recommendation letter that says, “Noah was the spark that ignited classroom discussions, the student who read the whole book when only a chapter was assigned. His infectious enthusiasm for history motivated everyone around him to think a bit harder or re-think things once again.”
It’s obvious which recommendation would make a difference! The only way a student can get a recommendation like Noah’s is by opening up and participating in class.
Plan ahead and be considerate
It is preferable for students to get recommendations from teachers of core academic subjects—math, for example, rather than photography.
In addition, students should try to get recommendations from junior-year teachers: they’re able to provide a more recent evaluation of student performance than sophomore-year teachers, but they also had a whole year to see the student in action, unlike senior-year teachers.
This means that rising juniors should start thinking about which instructors might be candidate letter-writers and seek to develop relationships with these teachers right from the beginning of the school year.
Rising seniors should download application materials as soon as they are available and get the recommendation forms to teachers in a timely and organized fashion. The little details really do matter.
Students must remember that they are asking already busy instructors, who are most likely writing dozens of letters, to do them a favor.
They must be sure to give teachers plenty of time to write the letter. They must also make sure their material is organized and neat: all sections that students fill out must be properly attended to and all forms should be accompanied by stamped and addressed envelopes.
These little details can make a big difference to the teacher’s perception of a student—and can subliminally affect how the teacher feels about the student! Finally, don’t forget to send instructors a thank-you card when the process is over.
Provide information that the recommender can use to add concrete details and a personal touch
Teachers have many, many students. It can be difficult for a teacher to remember specific things about specific students, and it is perfectly appropriate for students to help teachers out with little reminders.
Students might provide teachers with a copy of an essay that had received particularly outstanding comments, or with updates about extracurricular activities that have been motivated and informed by their classroom studies. These details can help a teacher write a more powerful and personal recommendation.
For example, here is an excerpt from one high school teacher’s letter from MIT Admissions that really made an impact. Notice the specific details the teacher was able to recall:
“David’s abiding interest, however, is computer science. He has developed a series of “strands” for use in providing computerized drill and review in the basic skills and techniques of algebra and arithmetic and has recently adapted these to other subjects. David’s work in this area has been so original and significant that he has published a paper on it and delivered several lectures to professionals in other parts of the country. This is a phenomenal accomplishment for anyone, especially a young man in rural Arkansas. It is also worth noting that both last year and this year David taught computer programming to a tenth-grade class of mine for two weeks. He took over completely, preparing lectures, assignments, and tests with great care and thought. His lectures were clear and well organized, and it was obvious that he had expended a great deal of effort to make the course the success that it was.
David’s personal qualities are as impressive as his intellectual accomplishments. An extremely kind, sensitive and sensible boy, he has had a difficult family situation for a few years now. He provides emotional support to his mother through her battle with cancer without allowing the situation to undermine his own stability and accomplishments. He has exhausted all that we have to offer him in this small community, and the maturity that he has demonstrated leads me to believe him capable of entering college a year early, as he now plans to do. I sincerely hope that you will be able to offer him a place in MIT’s freshman class.”
MIT Admissions offers their own praise for this informative letter:
“This recommendation is filled with comments from someone who clearly knows this student well. We get a clear sense for not only David’s intellectual capacities, but also emotional maturity. His genuine love for computer programming comes through in this teacher’s description. We also realize that he is pushing academic boundaries in his community and making opportunities for himself – a trait that is especially important for a candidate seeking college admissions…”
A word of warning: students must be sure to give teachers only select and relevant supplementary information. Teachers definitely do not appreciate being flooded with superfluous papers—this is extra work for them, after all!
Waive the right to read recommendation letters
Students have the option to waive their right to read recommendation letters. They must make this decision before handing the recommendation forms to recommenders.
College admissions officers tend to give much less credit to letters that have been read by the applicant. Knowing a student might read the letter may very well impact the recommender’s willingness to write in a completely candid fashion. Students who waive their right to read their recommendations demonstrate confidence in their relationship with the recommender.
In the ideal case, students should have no reason to doubt whether they will get solid recommendations. And most teachers will refuse to write a recommendation rather than write a poor one. However, when in doubt, a student can initiate a frank conversation and ask whether a teacher feels informed enough to write a strong recommendation.
Counselor: Letter of Recommendation for College
I said before that a recommendation is a personal but third-party perspective on a student that can provide independent validation of what the student says elsewhere on the application. To expand on this, I should point out that each recommendation type illuminates a different aspect of the student.
Teacher recommendations attest to a student’s ability in a particular subject area and his or her way of interacting intellectually with peers.
School counselors, by contrast, see students in a broader context. In other words, a teacher will compare a student with other members of his or her class and will focus on the student’s academic performance and character.
A guidance counselor will compare a student with other members of his or her grade and factor in extracurricular activities and leadership roles as well as academic abilities.
However, the value of a counselor recommendation does not end with the bigger picture counselors provide.
Guidance counselor, Lori Jacobson, had a huge impact
Here’s a true story to think about.
Lori Jacobson was a guidance counselor for many years at a highly-respected public school in southern California. During her twenty-year tenure, she saw handfuls of her students get into the most selective universities across the nation…year after year. Harvard University, for example, normally admitted one or two students from Ms. Jacobson’s school every year. Harvard eventually initiated contact with Ms. Jacobson. The university had received applications from four very strong candidates in Ms. Jacobson’s high school. Admissions officers had already decided to admit one, but they wanted Ms. Jacobson’s help in choosing which of the three remaining candidates would get the second spot.
There are two things to take away from this story.
First, students should not underestimate the amount of influence their guidance counselors have with colleges! Good guidance counselors can function as advocates for their student, initiating contact with college admissions offices and providing admissions committees with important information on behalf of their students.
Second, let’s consider why Harvard University enlisted Ms. Jacobson’s help. It was because she could provide additional insight not found anywhere else, including in the applications themselves.
What kind of information could a guidance counselor provide that a student can’t?
Counselors can powerfully present personal information
I already mentioned that guidance counselors can give crucial contextual information. They can tell a college how hard the AP Physics teacher really is and how many high-achieving students are too afraid to take the course. They can remind a college that their school Speech and Debate team is nationally-ranked and that captaining the team is a real honor.
There is another kind of information—information of a rather more personal kind—that is best heard from guidance counselors rather than from students themselves.
One of the most important functions of a counselor recommendation is to detail any adversities and personal issues that might have affected a student’s academic performance.
Coming from a counselor, this kind of information amounts to an explanation of a weak term, for example, or a year of complete non-participation in extracurricular activities.
Coming from the student directly, however, the same information inevitably sounds like an excuse, even if it’s true.
Diane’s counselor helped contextualize her academic performance in light of her adversity
Several years ago, I worked with a student who was suffering from a rare eye disorder that required her to undergo multiple surgeries and skip school for a month.
Now of course, the student was able to detail parts of her experience in her personal statement. But it was the counselor recommendation that really lent credibility to her application.
The counselor was able to contextualize Diane’s academic performance (straight As, 1470 SAT score) in light of her adversity.
Diane’s counselor could say what Diane couldn’t: that her grades were all the more impressive because of the circumstances under which she achieved them.
Ultimately, Diane, whose disability made her passionate about becoming a doctor, was admitted into a school with one of the top three medical programs in the nation: Washington University in St. Louis.
The case of Diane also points to something else a guidance counselor can do better than the student: brag. I already stressed that students shouldn’t think of their essays as highlight reels. Rather, students should aim for modesty—and leave it to the cold hard numbers and the recommendations of others to do the rest.
Counselor recommendations are powerful tool – use them!
The counselor recommendation is an invaluable and often neglected tool in the college admissions process.
Although students need to be demure about their achievements and stoical about their hardships, counselors have no such constraints. In fact, their job is to boast about their students or to explain in full detail what hardships students have endured and overcome. This means that it’s critical for students to make a concerted effort to get to know their guidance counselors and keep them updated on their various activities. Students shouldn’t just assume that counselors know what they’re up to or what they’re dealing with.
One guidance counselor at a Bay Area private school had no idea that her student was a nationally recognized cellist since the student never told her!
Although many students might doubt the effectiveness of their counselor’s recommendation, especially if coming from a large school, Laura Lavergne, Communications Director at UT Austin’s Office of Admissions, disagrees.
At UT Austin, we use a holistic review process. As a result, meaningful information that comes to us through any submitted items – including recommendations – [has] the potential to make a difference when we are reviewing applications.
Students should make it a point to check in periodically with their guidance counselors. The more a counselor knows of a student’s life, the more comprehensive a recommendation the counselor will be able to write.
Supplementary: Letter of Recommendation for College
The supplementary recommendation is an optional part of the application, and each school has its own policy for handling these letters.
Here are a few guidelines to help a student decide whether or not to submit a supplementary letter of recommendation.
First, students must not be fooled into thinking that more is better or that more can’t hurt. Students absolutely should not submit additional letters that say the same old thing and don’t contribute anything to their profile. There is no quicker way to irritate a busy admissions officer than to send a whole bunch of unnecessary and repetitive information. (In fact, admissions officers have a saying: “the thicker the file, the thicker the applicant.”)
Be open-minded about who you ask a supplementary letter of recommendation
Related to the last point: students shouldn’t be narrow-minded in their idea of what makes a good recommender.
“Diversity is an additional key consideration for students requesting multiple letters of recommendation. When students gather recommendations from…others who know them in different capacities, they paint a fuller picture for admissions officers,” says Cassie Poncelow, a school counselor at Poudre High School in Fort Collins, Colorado. Some of the best recommendation letters are written not by members of government or presidents of companies, but by people who really know a student in a different and revealing context.
One Cornell admissions officer still remembers a recommendation he read several years ago. As he recalled it in an article for the New York Times, the recommendation had been written on behalf of “a young man from a comfortably middle-class family who had [been hired] as a manual laborer…. To the surprise of his boss, ‘the kid’ worked without complaint through stifling heat when several of the more experienced crew groused, took long lunches and asked to leave early.” The admissions officer noted that he had seen “few letters address motivation more effectively” than this letter from a roofer. Unsurprisingly, the student was admitted.
Don’t underestimate the importance of a great letter of recommendation for college
To summarize, students shouldn’t underestimate the importance of the recommendation letter.
Although even an outstanding letter cannot compensate for other weaknesses in the application, it can make a material difference: it can explain why one student with a seemingly rock-solid application was rejected while another with near-identical numbers and activities was accepted.
Students should be realistic, however. The vast majority of letters end up being generically complementary and therefore inconsequential.
The best letters come from people with an intimate knowledge of the student. So instead of pinning hopes on chasing down big-name letter-writers or well-connected alumni, students should work on nurturing strong relationships with teachers who inspire them, guidance counselors who “get” them, and anyone else—bosses, internship coordinators, etc.—with whom they have meaningful contact.
Danny is the CEO of FLEX College Prep. Danny’s core focus is on helping young people get the best advice, and be the best students they can be. His team of professionals are also personal coaches, and great people, driven by the same passion for helping people.