What is Your Teacher Adding to Your College Application with a Recommendation Letter?

By: Judi Robinovitz | Last Updated: April 5, 2013

In a number of public universities where applications total well over 35,000 (gulp) each fall, there’s no time to read letters of recommendation. After all, who would write a lousy reference? What purpose would a letter serve beyond the transcript, personal essays and the application data? University of Florida and Florida State, for instance, don’t want your recommendation letters. Nor do many other schools.

Private colleges are another matter. They typically ask for one or two letters from teachers who know you well. If you’re going to ask a teacher you have today (which is really the best thing to do), or one you’ve had in the recent past, for such a recommendation letter, be aware of certain Do’s and Don’ts for the contents. There are at least three kinds of data that the admissions person does not want to see from a teacher:

1. Your class grade

Remember the transcript? It’s all there. Don’t waste the reader’s time. Praise for specific qualities that you bring to your work—sure. Sharing the fact that you got an A in AP English Language and Composition is of no value in a letter of recommendation.

2. Reiteration of your citizenship qualities

Your resume will speak to your activities outside the class. You may even write a short essay for the Common Application about your most meaningful activity. Not of interest in a recommendation letter. The teacher should focus on your academic qualities, on the benefits of having you in the class, and your intellectual power.

3. The Length of the Teacher Relationship

The reader of the recommendation letter can reasonably assume that the teacher has had enough days in the classroom with the applicant so that the letter will contain some reflections on the student’s essential academic character. Whether or not the teacher has known the student outside the classroom is of no importance, and adds nothing to the bona fides of the teacher’s comments.

I think you can see where I’m heading with this. You’re applying to a school where you will attend classes. Your intellectual prowess comes first. Schools want to know that they can take a chance on you, and so they seek information about you as a learner, as a class participant, as a responsible, maturing young adult who enjoys the classroom environment. Your teacher, therefore, should write about you in the classroom. Class contributor? Someone who goes the extra mile? Lover of challenges? Hard worker despite setbacks? Special projects?

Such is the short story that should make it into the letter of recommendation. So, select teachers who you think can fill in the picture for the Admissions Office – and ones who can write well. Consider someone teaching a subject relevant to what you would like to study in college. Today, do what you can to make an honest and positive impression on the teachers whom you’ll select.

Asking your selected teachers for recommendations before they leave for the summer holiday is a good idea as it gives them all summer to think about what they’d like to write, and pretty much guarantees getting your recommendations in a timely manner in the fall. The best way to ask is by saying something like this: “I’d be honored if you’d consider spending the time to write a college recommendation for me. While I don’t need it until the fall, I wanted to give you enough time to do it, especially because I know so many other students will also be asking for your recommendation.” To help them write more anecdotal recommendations, email each one a bullet list highlighting your special memories of that class (e.g., the impact of particular assignments on your education, your impact on your classmates) and , how you have grown as a student as a result of that class. Even though you don’t want a teacher to extol the virtues of your extracurricular commitments, it’s a good idea to share your resume with the teacher.

You may ask at most 1-2 additional people who know you well for letters of recommendation — but most likely not other academic-subject teachers in your school as they’re unlikely to say anything different about you. Perhaps an athletic coach, arts instructor, professor from a summer program on a college campus, supervisor at work, or head of a community service organization to which you have made a substantial contribution. Do this only if you believe this will add substantially to your application.

You’ll most likely also need a “school recommendation,” typically written by your guidance or college counselor, or by someone else in your school’s administration. Make a plan to get to know the administrator whom you’ll ask to write your recommendation, even making an appointment to share information about you as a student and vital member of your community. This is also an opportunity for your parents to send an email to the administrator to share information about you which the administrator may not know, and which is likely to find its way into his or her recommendation.

Topics: College Application


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