Recommendations about Letters of Recommendation

I had a student ask me this afternoon about recommendation letters.  That’s not unusual, of course, but for some reason, they way in which she asked me really got me thinking about it so I thought I’d jot down a few thoughts on the subject while it’s fresh in my mind.  So here is my recommendation on recommendations:

It’s always been my rule of thumb for recommendations that the letter should reveal something about you (the student) that can’t already be seen in the rest of the application; for example, if a you ask your math teacher to write a letter because you happen to be a member of the math club and he or she is therefore quite qualified to talk about you, it isn’t just enough for that teacher to say that you’re a member of the math club.  It likewise isn’t enough for he or she simply to outline that you’re the club president and that you’ve been a great student to work with over the last few years, etc.  Any admission counselor reading your file has already discerned that information, both through your activities list/resume in the application itself and can assume that your math teacher enjoyed working with you because he or she was willing to write a recommendation for you.

In short, none of that information is new and therefore it can’t really highlight you as a person outside of your already-thorough application file.  (And that’s the whole point of a letter of recommendation, right?)

So what makes a recommendation really strong?  What types of information should be included to make it stand out?

If your math teacher can highlight the features that make you a good math club president (“Jane is a natural-born leader who is always comfortable heading discussions or suggesting ideas for club projects.”), that’s a great start.  It’s also very helpful if he or she can share an example of a time when you really contributed to the club as a leader or even just as a member (“Last spring, we held a fundraiser for our Mole Day party and Jane was instrumental in the organization process.”)  Adjectives that can provide insight into your character and what type of college student you may be are the final key ingredient in any good letter of recommendation; often, these descriptive terms may come off as cliched, but they are still helpful as a supplement to the rest of your application.

Now, it’s never a guarantee that the person you request a recommendation from will be a gifted writer and will be able to paint the kind of picture of you that will be truly outstanding in the eyes of the admission counselors and committee at a particular college, but that’s okay.  The most important component to any recommendation is not how it’s written, but who writes it.  I’m not talking about celebrities here (though in my admission office days, I did once read a recommendation from the CEO of Duncan Toys – and it was very well done!); I’m talking about a writer who really knows you.  I’m talking about someone who has spent enough time with you to have a true idea of your character, your potential, and your abilities.

If you’re an equestrian, there’s a good chance that this person is your trainer/instructor/coach.  But maybe he or she doesn’t know you as well as the “barn mom” whose kids you’re always helping at the shows or the stable manager for whom you’re always doing extra chores just to help out.  Or perhaps your math teacher knows how well you keep up on your assignments – even when you’re away at shows – and can speak to your tremendous talent for balancing your sport and your academics.

There are a host of possibilities available to every student – the trick is just determining who will be the best choice.  And no matter who you choose, the other key element to remember is that you must ask early to give the letter writer plenty of time to write a great recommendation.  Early applications (and even some regular applications) are due in mid to late fall of your senior year, so it’s best to begin asking in the spring of your junior year.  It sounds like jumping the gun (you may not even know exactly which schools you’ll apply to at that time), but if you want that really good letter that’s going to reveal your best character traits, you have to give its author the time and space to commit all of those great thoughts to paper.

…and that’s my recommendation.


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