What is the best recommendation for college admission

I promised I’d get around to writing about recommendations, and at long last I have.  Colleges look at recommendations, first and foremost, to get additional information about what kind of student you have been and will be.  It shouldn’t be much of a surprise, then, that the most important recommendations are usually from teachers.

There are, of course, exceptions.  If your dad’s best friend has his name on a building, a reference letter from that person won’t hurt, even if you never met him.  Since that’s not terribly common, unfortunately, let’s focus on teachers for today (on the other hand, if your dad’s best friend would like to get his or her name on a building, please have them contact me).

The best teacher to write about your academic talents is going to be the one that admissions officers will find the most credible.  As a result, the perfect teacher profile is one who has taught you most recently (or who is teaching you now), who teaches a challenging academic subject (math, science, English, social science or foreign language), and in a class where you had to work really hard but also received great grades.  And the teacher should also like you.  That last is usually the challenging part.  It’s almost impossible to find exactly this combination, so make trade-offs (haven’t had since I was sophomore, but LOVES me, for instance).

There is an art to asking for recommendations, namely that you should ASK.  Teachers are incredibly busy people and these requests come in WAVES. You also need to ask the right way.  The correct question is, “Would you please write me a GOOD recommendation.”  The emphasis is important.  I’ve read a huge number of recommendations where the writer is seemingly out to get the student.  A bad sign is if the recommender replies, “Well, I can write you a TRUTHFUL recommendation.”  That is code for, “you did something a while back that really ticked me off and I’m going to feel compelled to share.”  I had one that went into tremendous detail about how the student toilet papered her house the previous year.  It was all I could remember in committee.

Next up, what your recommenders should write about, and who else can write them.  Be seeing you.


10 Responses

  1. Nice post! I would also add that you should try to get teachers from different subjects. For example, recommendations from an English teacher and a Biology teacher are preferable to recommendations from a Chemistry and a Physics teacher. You should try to cultivate these relationships early if you want to help them help you get into a good college.


  2. Yes. Please be passing the class of the instructor that provides you the letter of recommendation. I have a letter from a high school English teacher where he indicates the student is currently failing his class. This is a favorite of students and parents when I display the letter (sans personal information to indicate the student, teacher, or school) at presentations to high school sophomores and juniors.

    And while you might feel that a letter from a state senator or state representative is going to impress us, usually the student with the highly impressive “name” for a recommendation has the lowest grades.

  3. What’s the worst recommendation you’ve ever read?

  4. A difficult question – there are so many bad recommendations to choose from – should I pick the ones from parents that share no information, other than gushing over how impressed they are by their own child? Or the ones speaking to an applicant’s academic talent that are filled with grammatical errors? I think, however, I would say the worst are when the ones that really don’t recommend the student, or even subtly suggest the student isn’t a good candidate – those are the only cases where I think it really counts against a student.

  5. hey hi,can sm1 tell me tat one of my professor gave me an average LOR.I have submitted 4…
    hw much will it effect my application procedure??

  6. Do admissions officers often call the teacher? I got one from one who wrote a killer recommendation, but since we’ve been on shakier terms and I’m nervous the admissions people will call him. Is that common? (I’m talking about really top schools, i.e. Harvard, Princeton, Duke, etc. if that makes any difference)

    • It’s very unusual for admissions officers to contact recommendation writers, although there are two exceptions. Recommendation writers that have second thoughts will at times either put a message into the recommendation suggesting that they would be more forthcoming on a phone call, or they will call the admissions office with a similar message (note – that goes beyond the “you can call me for more information” – something like, “I feel there is more I should share so please call me”. There are also very rare times when an admissions officer will suspect that the recommendation is not authentic and will contact the writer to verify. All of these circumstances are very unusual

  7. How many recommendations does GMU require? One place said just a counselor recommendation, but then the Recommendation Provider on the online application says “Please list the identities of at least 2 people who will be submitting letters of recommendation on your behalf.”

    • Sorry for the confusion – if you applied “score optional” than two recommendations are required. If not, than you only need to submit your counselor recommendation, but you are welcome to submit up to two additional recommendations.

  8. Ah, okay! Thanks for clearing that up. This blog is such a wonderful resource for application/admission confusion!

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