Preparing for College

Should My Teacher Mention Each College By Name in My Recommendations?

Question: My teacher is writing a recommendation letter for me. In the first paragraph of the letter, my teacher writes that "It's my great pleasure to recommend this student to your renowned school." Is it okay for him to just write "to your renowned school"? Or should he write the specific school I am going to apply to? I have asked many teachers and friends for advice, and they give different opinions. Some said that it is fine to just write "to your renowned school", suggesting that the selection committees of the universities know that students will apply to several schools. However, others said that it is more polite to write the specific name of the university. Please help me.

Because most students apply to multiple colleges, admission officials do not expect the teacher reference to be directed specifically at their school, and thus a generic beginning will not penalize you at all. What is most important is that YOU don't seem "generic." ;-) In other words, the teacher should not just use complimentary adjectives (“hard-working,” “considerate,” “honest,” “intelligent”); he should also provide anecdotes and examples that will make the letter come alive and that will illustrate the accolades.

There are, however, occasional times when a “customized” letter of recommendation is appropriate. If, for instance, your teacher graduated from a college on your list or, for some other reason, has significant personal knowledge of it (e.g., his child went there, several former students attended and kept in touch …) then it can be worthwhile for the teacher to create a special letter that is tailored to this school and which explains why it would be a perfect fit for you. (Example: “I am very familiar with Amherst College because my own son, Edward, graduated in 2009. Henry is a perfect candidate for Amherst. He shares Edward’s passion for making connections between seemingly different academic areas. This passion was nurtured through Amherst’s open curriculum, and Edward thrived there, as will Henry as well …”)

Note, however, that these customized references are rare and are most apt for an Early Decision or other first-choice college. Moreover, if they are disingenuous (e.g., the author doesn’t really have any special knowledge of the school) then this approach won’t help at all and might even hurt.

So, bottom line: Don’t expect your teacher to mention the college name in your letter. What is more critical is that he helps admission officials to see a side of you that the rest of your application may not fully reveal.

(posted 10/18/2012)