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Obtaining Strong Recommendations

Whenever students and parents discuss the common application and other college applications, all they seem to talk about is the personal narrative and college-specific essays. While these essays are critically important parts of a student’s application, the truth is that there is a lot more to an application that must be addressed if a student is to successfully navigate the college admission process. In this series of articles, we will discuss all components of a successful college application. Part One was about the essays. Part Two was about activities. Part three is about recommendations

One of the most important and underrated parts of a student’s college application is the recommendation section. To colleges, the information provided by unbiased individuals such as teachers, counselors, and coaches is pure gold. Written correctly, recommendations provide personal insights into a student’s characteristics, which has the potential to add significant depth to each student’s application. For students with extremely high GPAs and test scores who are competing for spots at elite colleges, recommendations serve as differentiators that allow students to stand out from a strong and crowded field. For students with less-than-stellar academic records, recommendations can provide information that either explains away a lower GPA or provides additional information that may allow colleges to overlook relative weakness in academic performance. In either case, character means a lot in the admissions game, and recommendations are the best way to showcase these important, though non-objective, characteristics.

Many schools allow students (and their parents) the opportunity to provide information that they feel might be useful to a teacher or counselor in writing a recommendation. These are often referred to as brag sheets or recommender forms. If you are not sure if your school has these forms, be sure to ask your counselor. These forms should be completed before the end of junior year which is also the time you should be asking your teachers for recommendations. Neither of these activities should wait until junior year or summer or senior year, unless specifically indicated by your school. Furthermore, these forms should be filled out completely, skillfully, and thoughtfully. After all, if you don’t take the time to help your teacher or counselor understand your perspective, why should they care enough to take the time to write you a meaningful and thoughtful recommendation?

The truth is that teachers rarely write bad recommendations. They always have something good to say – which is part of the problem. If all recommendations are good, then how likely is it that a good recommendation will help you move the needle toward acceptance? The truth is that a good recommendation is not going to help you; a great recommendation is! The difference between a good recommendation and a great recommendation can only be measured in light years. Therefore, taking all necessary steps to earn, yes earn, a great recommendation is well worth the effort. Most colleges accept two teacher recommendations, a counselor recommendation, and an “other” recommendation from a coach, religious leader, or other person outside of school. This varies a bit from college to college, in that some colleges do not accept any other recommendations and some take two or more. Almost all colleges allow you to submit two teacher recommendations and one counselor recommendation.

Teacher Recommendations

In most cases, teacher recommendations are written by 11th grade teachers. However, this is not a steadfast rule. In some cases, 10th grade teachers may have greater insights into a student’s personality or other characteristics and may serve as better recommenders. The choice of who serves as a recommender is typically yours, as long as the teacher agrees to be a recommender. In most cases, colleges prefer one recommendation from a STEM subject teacher and one from a humanities subject teacher. Some colleges, mainly technical and engineering oriented schools, prefer the two recommendations to be from either math or science teachers. In general, teacher recommendations tend to go beyond your academic ability to discuss things like your participation in class, your attitude, your class leadership, your classroom demeanor, and some aspects of your personality. In cases where teachers know you outside the classroom either through activities or through discussions you may have had, they are likely to speak about positive characteristics such as your commitment to helping the community, your passion for a particular subject or interest, your maturity, and your likelihood to be successful in a competitive college environment.

Earning stellar teacher recommendations is a process. Each one should be carefully curated over one to two years of shared experienced between you and your teacher. The process of curating stellar recommendations begins the first time you meet a teacher. You should make a strong first impression and continue to be an impressive and important presence in the classroom. You should offer to be a leader when the opportunity arises. You should always do more than is asked. You should make it a point to help students who may be struggling to understand certain aspects of the class, either during or outside of class time. You should make a regular effort to see the teacher during office hours, if only to discuss the subject and not necessarily to get extra help. Remember, teachers are passionate about the subject they teach and are more likely to write stellar recommendations for students who share their passion.

If your teacher recommenders are unaware of your external activities, you should consider providing them with a copy of your résumé. If you don’t have a résumé, you should create one. The resume should include the classes that you’ve taken, the test that you’ve taken, your activities inside and outside of school, and any awards or honors you have received.

Counselor Recommendations

Counselor recommendations tend to be more factual in nature simply because students rarely spend much time with their counselors. As a result, counselors depend heavily on the information that you provide them with. If possible, you should plan to spend some time with your counselor during sophomore and junior year, and not wait until senior year to introduce yourself. The statistics here are pretty telling. According to NACAC (the National Association of College Admission Counseling), the average college counselor spends 45 minutes in total with each student during his/her four years of high school. That is approximately 11 minutes per year, or just over one minute per month. That is not enough time to get to know a student. However, you may request additional time with your counselor in order to ask questions about how to best prepare for the college admission process. Not only will the information provided tend to help you, it will also help you build the basis for a stronger recommendation from your counselor.

Other Recommendations

Other recommendations typically come from professional people who know you outside of academic time at your school. It could, however, be a sporting coach, a music coach, an art teacher, or a performing arts director. It could also be someone you work with outside of school such as a personal trainer, an art teacher, or a music teacher. It could also be someone for whom you interned, someone you worked for, or someone who knows you in another non-academic capacity. Typically, other recommendations are submitted through the Common Application (except for schools that do not use the common application), though sometimes they can be submitted directly to the college admission office. This is tricky business and should not be done unless the college has directed you to do so. Often, you have more control over an other recommendation than either your teacher or counselor recommendations. This is because people who serve as other recommenders are usually more willing to provide information that you deem to be important to your admission candidacy. For this reason, other recommendations should be more personality oriented. For example, they might mention how hard you work, how much you care about quality, how you handle constructive criticism, how well you work in a team, or how talented you are in a particular field. They might also speak to your potential to excel in a particular realm.

In all cases and for all types of recommendations, it is fundamentally important for recommenders to paint you in the most positive light possible. They should speak to your excellence, not your competence. They should speak to your potential to be among the best, rather than your ability to keep up with the rest. The holy grail of recommendations are those that indicate that you are one of the best that the recommender has ever had the opportunity to work with. That kind of wording will move the needle more than you can possibly imagine!