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College 101

Everything You Need to Know About Recommendation Letters
Article Type: Quick and Dirty

Teacher recommendations are the butter to the bread that is your college application.

(Say what?) It's true; just bear with us. And get the toaster ready.

Do you prefer your recommendation letters lightly browned or burnt to a crisp?


Why do teacher recs matter so much? Think about things for a minute from the perspective of an admissions officer at your dream school. What's his job? To find the best students he can for his school and shape the freshman class (and make him look really good). Period. But what, exactly, does that mean? And how is that admissions officer supposed to distinguish one promising application from another? Things that happen in the movies (Risky Business, Clueless, Rudy) don’t generally happen in real life, and sending a scented application with a $25 gift card to Olive Garden doesn’t cut it either.

Admission officers work for the faculty they represent. They’re like the underbosses, or maybe the capos in a mob family: They’re responsible for bringing in the best crews (freshman classes) to the family (the college). They’re responsible for vetting the new wiseguy (you).

In other words, they want to bring the best young scholars as possible to these educators. They want their faculty to be able to teach the most engaged, interested, and hard-working individuals available (capiche?). And they want to find students who can grow, and use their college experiences to contribute (yup, it’s all about contributions, wiseguys) something to the wider world. In other words: They want these bright, industrious young people to inspire alumni to give and give…and give.

They also want to find students who can live with others in tight quarters without turning the dorms into Lord of the Flies, figure out how to use quarters to wash their clothes (believe us when we say that sometimes a quarter is more than just a quarter), feed themselves in the dining hall, make their fraternities and sororities look good (in the brochure, anyway) and, perhaps, successfully get their flirt on.

"I'm a genius! Wait, why don't you guys speak Hindi or Tamil or something?"


Some of those attributes may shine through in things like grades or test scores. Others…yeah, not so much.

Typically, a teacher evaluation or teacher recommendation is just a simple form; you want to make it as easy as possible for them to sing your praises. Your teachers will find blanks to provide information about who they are, what they teach, and how they know you. They’ll fill out a series of boxes asking them to rate your skills, your character, your academic potential, your work ethic, and so on. There might be space on the form allowing them to elaborate. This can be both a good and a bad thing.

Are teachers always going to elaborate? Um… probably not. The good teachers are going to be asked by lots of seniors for letters of rec; imagine their irritation translating to the page when you’re the one pestering them to elaborate.

Writing an actual letter is usually optional for your recommenders. Lots of teachers do end up writing formal letters, but it’s not a requirement. Admission officers won’t think less highly of the student if there is no letter attached to the evaluation form. Instead, they will scrutinize the form even more closely. Sometimes the form can provide more information that a letter can. And to be honest, sometimes you don’t want this teacher actually writing an essay about you; just because she’s a teacher doesn’t mean she can write. Sure, maybe a letter would be great from your English teacher but your calculus teacher, who can wax on about divergent sequences and deltas, can barely write his own name on the blackboard.

Mr. Smith
"So close, Mr. Smith."

Letters of rec are really important in helping an admission officer get a sense of how you learn and of who you are as a person. Hearing it from you or your parents is one thing but learning about you from someone who’s seen you take the SAT at 6:30 a.m. on Saturday after the Homecoming dance is going to count more. These evaluations help your admission officer know whether you will thrive in, and contribute to, the academic (and social) setting of the college.

Additional Letters of Recommendation

Some schools allow you to submit additional or supplemental letters of recommendation. These can come from a coach, a friend, an employer, a youth group leader, or just someone who knows you well enough to give a different perspective other than what your teachers could say. (And by different we mean better, more fleshed out than just the fill-in-the-blank yes-no-yes-no-I-choose-to-not-answer questions.)

Want to know more? Of course you do. You’re a curious high school student who wants to become a fantastic college student. Check out What Makes a Great Letter of Recommendation, Who to Ask, When to Ask, How to Ask for a Letter, and How to fill out your Letter of Recommendation Request.

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