How important are letters of recommendation in the college admissions process? Will I be at a disadvantage when applying to top colleges if I'm not that close to any of my teachers and the letters are very generic? How do you recommend choosing teachers to write them (the teacher that I know better, or the one who gave me the best grades)? Additionally, are supplemental letters of recommendation encouraged if I have a good person to write them, or are they more unnecessary and over-the-top?
Question #1: In theory, teacher recommendations can allow admission officials to look beyond a student's grades, test scores and extracurricular undertakings and to get a glimpse of the human being behind all that data. But in reality, most teacher references sound a lot alike. They are full of complimentary adjectives like "conscientious," "motivated" and "perceptive." They may include anecdotes, too (because teachers are advised that the admission folks like them), but even these are rarely memorable enough to move the needle at decision time. Admission committees do appreciate that Ajay stayed late to tutor a struggling newcomer in biology or that Henry was chosen to read his haiku at the Poetry Slam, but such stories won't help a candidate stand out in a hyper-competitive crowd.
What usually happens is that beleaguered admission officers — perhaps barely awake in the wee hours and with 50 files to finish before sunrise — will simply skim the recommendation letters in search of "flags." These flags can be pros or cons. For instance, they may provide information about uncommon excellence that might not crop up elsewhere ("She writes like a published novelist ... think Anne Tyler") or about a student's background ("There is no computer in the home") or character ("She consistently brings outlier classmates into discussions.") More rarely, teacher references suggest negatives, albeit subtly ("His essays, always, insightful are starting to show up on time more regularly") or worse ("He now tolerates dissenting opinions.") Yet even when they're on the hunt, admission officers often find no such flags at all — either the good ones or the bad — and thus their eyes glaze over as they read the same flattering but predictable words again and again.
So, to answer your first question: Teacher recommendations can be important but usually aren't, unless they're atypically revealing.
Question #2: Admission officials prefer references that come from 11th or 12th grade teachers, although there can be some wiggle room if a different teacher knows you best. (A few colleges do have rules about which teachers to select, so read websites carefully.) Ideally, choose a teacher who taught you English, history, math or science. Foreign language teachers can be acceptable if that's where your future major lies, and even art or music teachers are appropriate if you're aiming for specific programs in those fields. It's most important to pick a recommender who knows you well and who might be able to go beyond the aforementioned overused adjectives, even if you weren't a superstar in the class. In fact, sometimes when a teacher writes about a student's persistence and improvement, it can be more meaningful than a letter about the student's success.
Provide your recommenders with a short list of "Highlights from my time in your class." Even current teachers will be grateful for memory joggers such as, "You urged me to submit my research paper on women's suffrage to that national history contest where I won third place" or "I got the highest grade on the midterm." You can throw in some non-academic highlights, too, like, "Although you're a die-hard Yankees fan, I still enjoyed our baseball debates!" Don't, however, include a resume unless the teacher requests one. Admission officials will already know from your application that you're the class secretary, choir president, or crew captain, and they won't want to hear it again from your teachers, although teachers are known for using this information to round out skimpy references when they're not sure what else to say (thus the importance of that "Highlights" roster!).
Question #3: Only send optional references when the college permits this (again, check those instructions) and only if there is someone who clearly sees a side of you that your school counselor and teachers might miss. Admission committees don't need to learn that someone else calls you conscientious, motivated and so on. But perhaps an employer, religious youth-group leader, a coach or school club advisor (who doesn't actually teach you), etc., really understands what makes you tick. It's seldom smart to send more than one unsolicited reference, and don't send any from VIPs who know your family but not you (unless this VIP has a significant connection to the college in question or maybe is Michelle Obama or Bill Gates).
Bottom Line: Many high school juniors and seniors get stressed when deciding which teachers to ask for references. But because so few teacher letters are truly telling, most of them don't do a lot to help a candidate's admission chances ... or to hurt them either.
About the Ask the Dean Column
Sally Rubenstone is a veteran of the college admissions process and is the co-author of three books covering admissions. She worked as a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years and has also served as an independent college counselor, in addition to working as a senior advisor at College Confidential since 2002. If you'd like to submit a question to The Dean please email us at email@example.com.
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