Preparing for College

Parent Recommendation Letters to Colleges

Question: I have received a letter from an admission office of a college my daughter has applied to requesting a letter from parents to "share some traits she has that would demonstrate her full potential as a person, as well as special qualities that might make this college a good fit." This is our first time applying to colleges. Any suggestions?

Over a decade ago, when I worked in the admission office at Smith College, the administration decided to offer parents the opportunity to write a reference for their applicant daughters. Frankly, this was begun as a PR ploy. The idea was that Mom and Dad would say, "Gee, finally a college that cares about US and what WE think" and then they'd encourage their daughters to attend Smith.

Well, even if the concept was self-serving, we discovered that the parent letters were a huge plus. We often saw sides of our candidates that weren't revealed anywhere else in their applications. Mothers and fathers were full of anecdotes, and the best parent letters weren't merely strings of accolades ("conscientious," "hard-working,""reliable") but those that illustrated these qualities. Sure, some letters were a bit top-heavy with tales of pre-school triumphs ("She was the first girl in the Gopher Group to draw a tree that almost looked like one!" ). Such fond family memories didn't always translate into effective application fodder, but, overall, the parent letters enabled us to view our applicants through a unique lens.

So, as you approach this potentially daunting task, think about two key things:

1) Which of your daughter's best traits are NOT mentioned extensively (or at ALL) elsewhere in this application? Is she especially thoughtful? persistent? resilient? entertaining? What examples will help admission officials see this side of her "in action"?

2) Which of your daughter's best traits are ALREADY mentioned in the application but might be beefed up with extra examples to show them more clearly?

For instance, your daughter may be a very selfless person. Perhaps her many hours of community service are already listed in her application, but you can provide more details about the way she revised her entire weekly schedule and gave up her beloved aerobics class to be able to spend added time volunteering at the local literacy center or soup kitchen. Or is she the one who has always intervened if she sees friends or family members treating each other badly? This is the type of "good deed" that rarely makes it onto résumés but may say more about your daughter than anything on an activities list ever will. If your daughter is especially amusing or personable, tell the story of the time your flight was delayed for four hours, and she organized a charades game for all the children in the departure lounge.

You get the idea ... anecdotes and examples that show admission folks the real person behind the prose are what you, the parent, can provide ... perhaps better than anyone else in the world.

Above all, this missive need not be formal. Think of it more like a conversation with a benevolent stranger than a cover letter for a job application. Relax, have some fun with it, and let those admission folks know that they'll be lucky to land your daughter next fall.