My Prospective Recommendation Letter Writer Barely Speaks English!

Question: I have known my employer since grade 6, and she knew me especially well. Now, I want to add her to my supplementary recommendation list, but unfortunately her English is very bad. Is there any way to get around this?

If your employer speaks English poorly but can still express herself well enough in writing that she will be understood, then you don't have to worry that choppy grammar or occasional misused words will work against you. College admission officials are accustomed to plodding through letters from non-native speakers and may even be charmed by some of the errors. But, if you worry that your employer's English skills are too limited to be comprehensible or, especially, if you suspect that, due to her language shortcomings, she will write a brief and superficial letter that doesn't adequately reveal all of your outstanding traits, that's another story.

College admission officials don't need supplementary recommendations and aren't particularly delighted to read them unless they show another side of the candidate that the rest of the application does not. So, even if your employer speaks perfect English, the college folks won't want to know that you are “responsible" or “reliable" or 'bright," since, presumably, your teachers and counselors have already said so. However, if your employer can share some specific anecdotes that illustrate these characteristics in ways that the school personnel probably can't, or if she can point out additional strengths and skills (e.g., you created a bookkeeping system that solved a major problem; you came up with a brilliant idea to boost sales; or you turned an angry customer into a grateful, satisfied one) then this is information that admission committees might find helpful and which won't emerge in a teacher or counselor's report.

So … if you feel that your employer does have some valuable insights and examples to share but won't be able to get her ideas across in English, you can ask her instead to write her letter in her own language. You should then ask someone else who is fluent in both her language and in English (but not YOU!) to provide her with a translation to submit with her letter. Colleges expect professional translations for transcripts and school references, but you don't necessarily have to pay extra money to a pro to translate an unsolicited recommendation. (If you want to, however, there are plenty of translation services online.) If there is another impartial adult in your life who speaks both languages well (e.g., a teacher at your high school, a religious official or community leader), you can ask him or her to provide the translation, and the colleges should be happy with that. (Just ask your translator to include a brief note saying who s/he is.)

But, again, remember … before you go to all this trouble, ask yourself if your employer is likely to supply details that your application won't. It's not enough that she tells admission committees that you're a great guy; she's also got to tell them why, in whichever language she can best explain it!