Letters of recommendations can be a very nerve-wracking part of the application process since you are unlikely to ever see exactly what is in the letter. Our students fret over which teachers to ask and what they can do to help make the letters of recommendation look better.
Types of Letters of Recommendation
1. Teachers’ Recommendation
For most private US college applications, students are required to ask one or two teachers for a recommendation letter. The most common question we get as admissions consultants is which teachers to ask. We always tell students to ask teachers that like them the best that have the ability to show admission officers something beyond the common application.
If a student is in the IB curriculum, we always ask students to ask teachers that teach their Higher Levels because those are the teachers that have spent the most time with them. It would also be good for students to ask teachers that teach them the subjects that are relevant to their intended majors. For example, ask one of your STEM teachers if you are applying for engineering majors. Though only MIT explicitly cites this preference1 MIT Admissions. 2020. Letters Of Recommendation | MIT Admissions. [online] Available at: <https://mitadmissions.org/apply/firstyear/letters-of-recommendation/> [Accessed 9 October 2020]., we often advise students to ask for recommendation letters from one STEM and one humanities teacher so that the insight provided by teachers can be more well-rounded.
However, with that being said, there are no hard and fast rules about recommendation letters. Every year we hear news about students innovating and taking risks in their application. For example, in 2017, a student got into an Ivy League after asking the school janitor to write his recommendation letter2Dill, K., 2020. How A Relationship With A Janitor Helped This Teen Get Into The Ivy League. [online] CNBC. Available at: <https://www.cnbc.com/2017/04/05/a-relationship-with-a-janitor-helped-this-teen-get-into-the-ivy-league.html> [Accessed 9 October 2020].. Does this mean befriending the custodian staff and having them write a letter a surefire way to get into an elite school, no! Without special reason or circumstances, students should ask teachers and counsellors for recommendations but note that there are situations that warrant special courses of action to be taken.
Teachers’ recommendation letters tend to discuss the student on a more personal level. Teachers can speak to their academic abilities or past interactions with them. At the end of the day, common applications are pages of information about students that can start to blend together after you’ve seen dozens a day. Teacher recommendation can serve to paint a fuller portrait of a student, adding to the application in a way that is beyond the information asked of students.
Furthermore, many students are not aware that the letters of recommendation from teachers don’t just include a letter but a tick-box form. Let’s take a look at it here:
Figure 1. Taken from the Common Application portal3 Commonapp.org. 2020. [online] Available at: <https://www.commonapp.org/> [Accessed 9 October 2020].
In addition to the letter, your teachers must tick these boxes that compare you with the rest of your cohort or even with students she has taught in the past (since “top few” asks your teacher to indicate whether you are the top few she has taught in her career). Though we are not advising students to put on a character that is simply not themselves, it is always good to be aware of the criteria that your teachers will be judging you on when completing your letter of recommendation. For example, to show leadership in a classroom, you may simply opt to begin discussions when teachers are looking out at a silent room to respond or to show that you are good at handling setbacks, approach your teacher for ways to improve after not doing too well in a test. Small items that allow for interactions with your teachers go a long way to helping you get ticks in the right-most boxes. So, rather than looking at this as a to-do list, it’s more useful as a rubric for self-reflection and understanding. After all, it’s impossible to fake multiple years of interactions with teachers.
2. Counsellor’s Recommendation
The Counselor Rec is often the first step an admissions officer takes when beginning a new application, but it also feels like the one that is the most nebulous for students themselves. While students have a choice about which teachers to have write their Teacher Recommendations, the Counselor Recommendation can sometimes be more daunting because a lot of students don’t even know their school college counselor, especially for students in non-American schools where they may not even know who their college counselor is! In order to get a useful letter of recommendation that synergizes with the rest of your application, you need to know how they are used in the admission office and why they are so important.
Unlike the Teacher Recommendations, your college counselor needs to submit 4 separate updates throughout the application process: 1) the School Report, 2) the Counselor’s Recommendation, 3) the Mid-Year Report, and 4) the Final Report. Thus, the school’s college counselor, who is in charge of submitting these forms, needs a deep understanding of the school’s student cohort as a whole and can provide information to colleges about where the applicant stands against his peers. In the absence of a dedicated college counselor, this is often the school principal, a career advisor, or a house tutor.
However, with each year having a large cohort of students, each counsellor can be expected to have to handle at least a few dozen students’ applications. Since counsellors usually do not teach students or spend extensive amounts of time with them, their recommendation letters are more for providing information about the student in the context of the high school he or she attends.
To start, the counsellor may provide context for a students’ achievements or lack thereof through giving information about the high school the student is applying from. In a high school with students from low-income households, the counsellor can help put a student’s scores and the number of public examinations they take in context. For example, an SAT of 1290 and 2 APs taken in an underprivileged public school indicates something that is very different compared to someone with the same scores in an elite boarding school. Very importantly, the counselor’s letter of recommendation also includes information comparing the applicant directly against the “typical” student of that school.
Now let’s take a look at the form counsellor have to fill to show universities what their high school is like:
Figure 2. Taken from the Common Application Portal4 Commonapp.org. 2020. [online] Available at: <https://www.commonapp.org/> [Accessed 9 October 2020].
As you can see from the information they request from counsellors, the universities can now instantly see whether a student is a minority in their school, financially underprivileged or otherwise, the strength of the curriculum, etc. Using the same example as above, a student from an elite boarding school who has only taken two APs when his school offers twenty options clearly shows his lack of academic initiative and ambition versus a student from a public school that offers none who took two on her own volition. As evident from the last question in the chart above, students are also expected to be compared against their own peers from the same school; just because your entire school is competitive doesn’t mean that you can slack off and do less!
Counsellors may also help explain particular situations of students. These could include medical absences, family situations or disciplinary records. One of my past students had been living by herself since she was twelve years old because her parents are avid golfers that are barely ever around. She had to cook for herself and take care of the household in various ways, which affected her studies. Her counsellor wrote extensively in her recommendation letter to explain what this student has gone through and explained that her academic potential is beyond the already good, though not excellent, school record that she has. This student ended up gaining entry to her first choice top liberal arts college even though her grades were slightly below the accepted average.
3. Recommendations from “Others”
Another common question we get is whether the student can include recommendation letters outside of school. The straightforward answer is “it depends”.
Remember, most admission counsellors have to read through dozens of applications a day. There is a reason why the saying “the heavier the application, the faster it sinks” is prevalent within admission offices across the country. Unnecessary documents sent into the admission office may serve to confuse the admission officer reading the file. In the common application section for recommendation letters, most schools only allow for three (two from teachers and one from the school counsellor) to be submitted. When the application system is not designed for more letters to be submitted, when schools can easily add the option for applicants to do so, universities are saying loud and clear that they do not want extra letters to be submitted.
Most of the time, students who have “other” recommendation letters are from privileged families who have strong family connections with successful figures. We have been asked before if having the CEO of a large cosmetic company write a letter of recommendation would be helpful to a student applying to engineering school. The answer is no. The CEO is a close family friend that has not worked closely with the student, nor has any relevance to the student’s intended major. Letters like this only serve to highlight a student’s privilege.
Of course, there are exceptions. For certain schools like MIT or UPenn, they do allow for extra recommendation letters but only in specific circumstances. UPenn has stated that in addition to the three required recommendation letters, they will only deem appropriate letters of recommendation letters from “an athletic coach, internship or research supervisor, boss at a part-time job, or local clergy member”5Admissions.upenn.edu. 2020. Supplementary Materials | Penn Admissions. [online] Available at: <https://admissions.upenn.edu/admissions-and-financial-aid/what-penn-looks-for/supplementary-materials> [Accessed 9 October 2020].. For MIT, you are only invited to send in extra recommendation letters if you had completed extensive research work and a research supervisor can enlighten the admission officer on work you have done6 MIT Admissions. 2020. Creative Portfolios | MIT Admissions. [online] Available at: <https://mitadmissions.org/apply/firstyear/portfolios-additional-material> [Accessed 9 October 2020]./7. Even so, students should think critically and assess whether or not the additional letter of recommendation adds anything new to the application as a whole.
Let’s Look At Some Samples: Useful vs. Not Useful Recommendation Letters
A recommendation letter that is not useful may look something like this:
“Karen is a pleasant presence in class, occasionally inputting interesting insights. Karen is hard-working and a conscientious student. She is an active member of the Human Rights Club. She loves reading books and aspires to be an English major. I believe she will be a great addition to your university class.”
While positive in tone, this letter is not useful because it offers no greater insight into the student beyond what is already in her common application. For example, the teacher mentioned that she is a member of the Human Rights Club, but this would be apparent already in the extracurriculars section in the Common Application form. The short length of the letter and lack of details included exposes the fact that the student has not made a strong impression on the teacher.
A recommendation letter that is informative and useful to college admission officers may look something like this:
“Karen is one of the brightest students I have ever taught. In our classes, she always has deep insights into the materials we are studying. In particular, her analytical essay on The Great Gatsby showed her deep capacity to think and she had brought her analysis above and beyond what we have discussed in class.
I still remember a particularly riveting conversation I had with her in the school hallway about a book she was reading. She had scribbled notes and was excitedly discussing potential ideas she would like to explore. I offered her the opportunity to write an essay outside of required work for her to develop her ideas. She immediately seized the opportunity and is currently working on the essay out of her own interest.
I am also very impressed with her work in the Human Rights Club. She had brought a purely discussion-based club to one that has become active in the local community in Hong Kong. She has been working closely with Mother’s Choice and various LGBTQ charities and has led the organization of multiple successful fund-raising events.
I am delighted to recommend Karen to your university and I sincerely think she will be a great addition to your university.”
On the other hand, a recommendation letter like this indicates that the teacher has had many close interactions with the student. Not only does she have anecdotes about the student to share, but she also speaks of Karen’s qualities through examples of things Karen has done. This letter goes beyond what has already been shown in the common application form. Karen’s good academic record is now corroborated by her teacher and her willingness to take initiative has been demonstrated by the anecdote about her taking on work beyond the curriculum. This letter of recommendation strengthens Karen’s application.
A Quick Conclusion
A final word of advice: remember that your teachers and counsellor are people who lead full lives and carry full workloads. If you would like to ask someone for a recommendation letter, ask them early so they can better manage your time. Your teachers are not obligated to write you letters, so always be polite when you approach them for one. Ample notice not only demonstrates the respect you have for these adults but that may help them think of more comprehensive things to say about you. Furthermore, make an effort to schedule meetings and engage with the teacher. Conversations can go a long way!
Another quick reminder is that you should never exaggerate your achievements. Considering the extensive forms your teachers and counsellors have to complete and letters they have to write, the worst thing is when recommendation letters disprove the achievements you claim to be your own or exaggerate to the extent of untruth.
Good recommendation letters require those writing them to know about the student. Go talk to your teachers when you have a question and make sure your counsellor is well-informed of your situation. If there is one takeaway from this article is that we hope students will be earnest about working with their teachers and show who they are during classes.
Quantum Prep is an education consultancy that focuses on placing their students at the best colleges or universities. We boast of diverse results. In addition to the traditional rap sheet of prestigious university acceptances, our consultants like to highlight the different paths they have sent students on. All of our students are different; we are proud of our one-on-one tailored approach towards university counselling. Contact us for a complimentary 30-minute initial meeting, where you can get tailored individualized advice on how to put your best foot forward. Read our reviews to see what our clients think of us.
By Conrad Yu, Director of Development
and Antonia Chui, Managing Director