Letters of Recommendation: The Real Icing on Your College Admissions Cake

While colleges will not be happy to have you brag about yourself on your applications, it is absolutely appropriate, if not essential, for recommenders to sing your praises as enthusiastically and with as much detail as they can.
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Almost every private college and university -- and these days, some public schools as well -- requires at least one recommendation letter as a part of their college admissions packet. If you take a look at the list of their freshman applicant requirements, you will find one or more of the following:

  • School Report Form: Your high school college counselor is the person who usually completes this report, which often contains a written evaluation. Occasionally a non-counselor school official, such as a headmaster, principal, vice-principal, or upper school director, will fill it out for you.

  • Teacher Evaluation/Recommendation Form: Colleges will usually stipulate whether they want one or two teacher evaluations submitted.
  • Optional/Other Recommendation Form: Sometimes colleges will accept recommendations from people other than teachers, such as a mentor, coach, arts teacher, employer/supervisor, minister/rabbi, or someone who knows you through a volunteer or extracurricular activity.
  • Peer Evaluation/Recommendation Form: A few schools, such as Dartmouth College, ask students to have a fellow student complete a Peer Recommendation Form
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    Many colleges require recommendation forms, but some don't want them at all. For example, the University of California application states, "You should not submit letters of recommendation for the UC application." More than 500 colleges and universities make use of the Common Application, which offers the following forms: School Report (SR), Teacher Evaluation (TE) and Other Evaluation (OE) forms.

    Bottom Line

    While colleges will not be happy to have you brag about yourself on your applications, it is absolutely appropriate, if not essential, for recommenders to sing your praises as enthusiastically and with as much detail as they can.

    What if you're not a straight-A student? Think of teachers with whom you've had a good relationship, who can speak to your work ethic, and more importantly to your trajectory of improvement. If a teacher can honestly say in a letter that they've seen you grow from a struggling C-student to a consistent B student over the course of the year, that's good stuff! If as a freshman or sophomore you struggled in classes, yet found ways to connect with teachers to get extra help, admissions officers want to know. Colleges would love to hear that you were committed enough to work with a teacher during lunch or free periods three to four times a week in order to understand content and bring your grades up.

    Helping Your Counselor and Teachers do a Good Job for You

    All school counselors and teachers, particularly those who work in public high schools, are overwhelmed by all that they must do. Therefore, one of your jobs is to make their job of writing your recommendation easier. You have nothing to lose by doing this, and everything to win. Some of the ways that you make the counselor's job easier is by:

    • Being organized and neat

  • Providing the recommender with useful, detailed, up-to-date materials
  • Getting everything to him/her early, and certainly on time
  • Appreciating whatever is done
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    Because hand-written materials can be difficult to read, all information that goes to the counselor and teachers should be in typed form.

    Here is a list of information and materials you might want to give the counselor, teachers and other recommenders. Frankly, by being proactive, helpful, and providing useful, organized materials, you will enhance your chances of receiving a very good recommendation.

    1. High School Counseling Office Questionnaire

    Some high school counseling offices ask students and/or their parents to complete college admissions questionnaires. Do it and be sure to provide plenty of details. Counselors and teachers often take information straight off of these forms and put it in their report/letter.

    2. Up-to-date Activities Resume

    Nothing provides recommenders with more information about who you are and what you have done than a detailed, totally up-to-date activities resume.

    3. A College List

    It's very important that you provide an up-to-date college list that is organized by the dates when the different applications are due. On this list, be sure to note if you are applying early (EA, EAII, ED, EDII, REA or Rolling Admissions) to any college. One way of helping the recommenders is providing specific reasons why you are interested in each college.

    4. The recommendation forms

    Most colleges offer their forms online now; make sure that you type in the names of your school recommenders in the correct space. Some counselors and teachers prefer to use hard-copy forms. If that's the case, then fill out the top portion of each form and give it to the recommender. If the counselor and/or teachers don't want to use the online forms, then provide them pre-stamped, college-addressed envelopes to send each recommendation.

    5. Copies of your college application and/or essays

    Some counselors and teachers want to see students' applications and essays.

    6. Any other information that will be helpful

    If you have letters that laud your accomplishments or work; an art or music portfolio; or materials that describe your special interests and/or projects outside of school, provide recommenders with a neat, organized package of what you have. Find out what your recommenders would like from you.

    7. Parent information

    Depending on whether a recommender is open to parents doing this, provide him/her with useful information, such as a list of positive, descriptive adjectives that your parents have pulled together to help colleges "get" who you are: personal stories, brief descriptions of obstacles or significant family events that have impacted you, or interesting/useful family background details.

    8. Cover sheet

    A cover sheet should identify what you have given to a recommender. Not only is it useful to let recommenders know what you have provided them, but proof of your having given them the material. You never know when that might come in handy.

    Finally, make photocopies of everything you give to your recommenders. And don't forget to thank your counselor, teachers and others for whatever they do for you.

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