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.