Choosing the Best Recommender for Your College Application

In the college application process, certain aspects of the process have taken on an oversized importance in the minds of students, parents, and educators.  Students and parents are obsessed with standardized test scores, for example, which is quite understandable given the pressure that the SAT and ACT create due to the limited number of times students can attempt these tests and their cultural significance.  Teachers, counselors, students, and parents are rightfully concerned about grades, usually in the form of the grade point average (GPA), since that is usually the first factor that college admissions officers consider in college applications. In recent years, the college application essay has grown in seeming importance.  In fact, the essay has always been a major factor in admissions, but given the large numbers of students applying to colleges and universities of all varieties and levels, and the fact that more and more students have the test scores and grades to qualify for those schools, the essay has taken on new importance in the process.  There is one factor that is still often overlooked in the college admissions process, though: the letters of recommendation.

            Over the last few decades, the letter of recommendation has shrunk in seeming importance in the college application process. Before the advent of standardized testing in the 20th Century, letters of recommendation were an important factor in college admissions.  Admittedly, it was an easy tool to use in the period when less than ten percent of a much smaller American population attended college, and usually did so within a day’s horseback ride from home.  The periods of enormous growth in college participation, such as after World War 2, the 1960s, the 1990s, and now, have caused college admissions offices to depend more and more on numbers to help them cut through the large volume of applications.  Over the last decade, however, as more and more qualified students apply to colleges than there are freshman spaces available, non-numerical factors, such as the college application essay, students’ activities, and letters of recommendation have taken on renewed importance in the application process.

            Until recently, the choice of whom to pick for college application recommendations was rather limited.  Most colleges and universities have limited the number of letters of recommendation that a student could submit, and further required that one of those letters come from the guidance or college counseling department at the student’s high school.  Students only had one other opportunity to choose who would write a letter of recommendation, and many colleges insisted that the recommendation come from a teacher.

            In recent years, a slowly growing trend is for students to have the option to submit a third, and possibly even a fourth, letter of recommendation to supplement the required letter from a school guidance or college counselor and from a teacher.  Regardless of how many letters a student can submit, choosing the best recommender can have a small yet significant impact on a student’s application.

            When choosing which teacher to ask for a letter of recommendation, most students make the easy choice of picking a teacher that they, themselves, like, especially if the student has earned good grades from that teacher.  That may not always be the best choice, however.  Since colleges are using the letter of recommendation to get to know the student better beyond just the numbers, it is often a better choice to select a teacher with whom the student has a more significant, personal relationship. This may take the form of asking a teacher with whom a student has taken multiple classes, but it also may take the form of asking a teacher with whom the student has had to meet often, especially if the student found that teacher’s class particularly challenging.  The result can be that the recommender can write extensively about how the student rose to the occasion and overcame obstacles, with specific examples, instead of a generic letter praising the student in general terms.

            Should a student have the opportunity to submit a third or fourth letter of recommendation, it is often wise to go past the classroom to find a good recommender.  The most important factor is asking a person with whom the student has a strong personal relationship to write a letter.  The second factor is to find the recommender in an area of the students life that has significant meaning to the student. An athlete should ask a long-standing coach to write a letter.  A performing or fine artist should ask an artistic mentor, such as the band teacher or art teacher, to write a letter.  A student who has worked at a particular job for years should ask their boss or supervisor to write a letter.  A student who has volunteered extensively through a local religious or community center should ask a leader at that organization to write a letter.

            The impact of a good letter of recommendation is not necessarily the quality of the writing, but the authentic sentiment in the letter.  So long as the student and the recommender have a strong and authentic personal relationship, the letter will have the result of helping college admissions officers get to know the applicant on a more personal level.  And that is, in many ways, the goal of your college application.