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.
Why do teacher recs matter so much? Think about things for a minute from the perspective of an admission officer at your dream school. What's his job? To find the best students he can for his school. Period. But what, exactly, does that mean? And how is that admission officer supposed to distinguish one promising application from another?
Admission officers work for the faculty they represent. They want to bring the best young scholars possible to these educators. They want their faculty to be able to teach the most engaged, interested, and hard-working individuals available. And they want to find students who can grow, and use their college experiences to contribute something to the wider world.
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 wash their clothes, feed themselves in the dining hall, and, perhaps, successfully get their flirt on.
Some of those attributes may shine through in things like grades or test scores. Others… yeah, not so much.
Your admission officer needs to know what kind of scholar – and what kind of person – you really are. Who better to ask than professional educators who spend time with you every single day? That's right: your high school teachers.
Typically, a teacher evaluation or teacher recommendation is just a simple form. Your teachers will find blanks to provide information about who they are, what they teach, and how they know you. They will 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. (If you’re curious about what a teacher recommendation form looks like, check out the Common Application's 2010-11 Teacher Evaluation here.)
Writing an actual letter is usually optional for your recommenders. Lots of teachers do end up writing formal letters, but this is 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.
That being said, admission officers want to learn the following from a teacher evaluation:
Teacher recs are really important in helping an admission officer get a sense of how you learn and of who you are as a person. These evaluations help your admission officer know whether you will thrive in and contribute to the academic (and social) setting of the college.
Evaluation forms will usually include a box for you to check, indicating that you waive your right to read the recommendation in the future. Our advice: just check it. If you're really worried that your teacher might write something unflattering about you, then you might actually want to ask somebody else to be your recommender. (And don't be afraid to ask: it's better to straight-up ask a teacher, "will you write me a positive recommendation?" than to just hope for the best and end up with negative comments in your evaluation.)
Anyway, assuming that your recommendations are going to be positive, there's really no reason why you'd ever need or want to read it, anyway. So checking the waiver box will give admission officers confidence that your recommenders are being completely honest, not just saying nice things about you because they're worried that you'll read their words someday.