Reader Questions: Teacher Recommendations (Part One)

Today, we are back to our “Reader Questions” series! Have a burning question about school, college, or graduate admissions, or even high school in general? Please shoot us an email and we will make sure to address it in a future post!

Q: My daughter goes to Madison and loves her teachers, but there are so many students in each class. Every time we attend an information session, colleges talk about the importance teacher recommendation letters. I’m starting to get nervous that she will wind up with a “blah” letter just because her teachers are so busy. I just don’t think they know her very well. Are these actually that important? Is there anything we can do to get around this?

A: Yes, teacher recommendation letters are very important! As colleges and universities attempt to determine who a student is and how a student might fit within their academic environment, letters of recommendation give admissions committees a chance to learn about an applicant’s talents and personality in the classroom setting from someone they know they can trust: teachers.

One very, very common mistake is that teachers are not really given the support they need to write these letters. Most simply don’t know how to write a good letter - they don’t know what that entails. When I worked in admissions, I saw this all. the. time.

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Let’s start with recognizing the ways in which a seemingly nice letter can hurt an applicant. First, we have the “generic letter”.

“I highly recommend Joey. He is an asset to my classroom and a pleasure to see each day. He takes his work seriously and is a good role model to his classmates. I am confident that he will bring this same work ethic to college and will achieve much success.”

Nope. We just learned absolutely nothing about Joey. The committee thinks: “This teacher knows nothing about Joey. He was probably a good student but must not have distinguished himself very much.” This is the most common type of recommendation I see from well-meaning teachers who think that they are writing a beautiful letter.

Next, we have the “let’s change the subject” letter.

“Allison has the nicest smile - it brightens the entire classroom every day and makes it a great place to learn. She’s also an amazing lacrosse player and brought the entire team to the state championship!”

Nope. When an admissions committee reads about that smile, or the lacrosse championship, they think: “this teacher had nothing else to write about. Allison must not be as great in math class as she is at lacrosse!'“

Next, we have the “growth and potential” letter.

“Matthew has achieved so much growth since he began at Langley as a freshman. I know that he will continue to grow more as a person and a student during his college years, and look forward to hearing about his continued improvement when faced with the rigors of college life.”

Nope. When an admissions committee reads about an outside activity that is not related to the course, they think “Oh boy. This teacher had absolutely nothing positive to say about Matthew, even in terms of extracurricular activities or personality! We are not going to take a chance on Matthew’s potential for growth when we could take a student instead that has already achieved that growth!”

So, you have reason to be concerned. The good news is that the recommendation letter challenge is very easy to overcome. The first step is to ask the teacher the right way.

1. Tell the teacher what you need and give him an out. This is not the time to be shy. Moreover, don’t put pressure on them: no teacher wants to disappoint a student, but a teacher with hesitations is not the right person to be writing this letter. I recommend that all of my students ask for letters of recommendation with the following language: “Do you think you know me well enough to write me a supportive letter of recommendation?”

You are making it very clear that you need a recommendation that is supportive, while also making it very easy for the teacher to decline the request on the basis of how well they know you.

2. Next, ask the teacher if she has a questionnaire that she uses to collect information to write the letter. Many teachers today have questionnaires like this (more so at private schools, but there will be some teachers at every school that use these). Good for them! Teachers that ask students to fill out questionnaires are generally experienced recommendation-writers.

3. If the teacher does not have a questionnaire, offer to provide your own notes to assist in the process. No, you are not telling your teacher what to write. He can ignore every word. However, you are doing the hard work for him. You are giving him examples and anecdotes that he can’t possibly remember because he teaches a hundred kids at a time.

Next up: preparing the notes and/or questionnaire answers. We have you covered - stay tuned!