Reader Questions: Teacher Recommendations (Part Two)

Today, we are finishing up our second part of the response to our reader question about teacher recommendation letters. 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!

To recap, our reader asked:

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?

Our first post detailed the best way to ask a teacher to write a letter of recommendation. Today, we will focus on how we help students provide their teachers with meaningful notes that result in great recommendation letters. Note: we are certainly not suggesting that you write the letter for your teacher! This probably goes without saying, but writing the letter on your teacher’s behalf is not the right approach. Besides the fact that it is fraudulent, it would also be really insulting to hand your teacher a pre-written letter.

Here at DC College Counseling, we begin by giving every student a detailed questionnaire. We have carefully chosen questions that allow our students to articulate their strengths and academic interests while also reminding their busy teachers of their performance in class throughout the year - from accomplishments to challenges. Each of our questions are targeted to make sure that the teacher has all of the information he needs to write a superb letter - putting the burden of the leg work on the student and making sure that nothing is overlooked. Parents and students tackling this type of work at home can come up with their own sets of questions that relate to the student’s progress and performance in the classroom environment.

Great Teacher Recommendation Letters College Admissions Process

Here are some tips consider while answering these questionnaires:

Tip #1: Provide as much information as possible!  In addition to basic ideas, such as your favorite units and overall performance in their classes, we also encourage you to think of ways that their classes have impacted you in real life, inspired you in your extracurricular activities, or could relate to your chosen academic path. Ask yourself questions such as: 

  • Did you create a truly explosive project for your chemistry class? 

  • Have you developed new and exciting interests because of cultures you studied in a foreign language class? 

  • Are you pursuing admission at colleges with strong STEM programs because you were so inspired by your Algebra II or Physics teacher? 

  • Have you gained any related experience from summer jobs or internships? 

  • Do you have a closer relationship with a family member because of something that you learned about world history? 

Providing details your teachers might have forgotten will help them enliven their pictures of you! 

Tip #2: Keep your letters different! Since your teachers will be using your request letters to inform the content their recommendations, we also encourage you keep your request letters quite different from one another. These letters should be personal and illustrate different strengths. Moreover, you want the college admissions folks to get a broad range of your abilities and personality, rather than multiple letters simply repeating the same things. It’s fine to cover the same themes (after all, that would only make sense - your strengths and weaknesses as a student are likely to be relatively similar from class to class, regardless of the specific course content). However, this is the time to think back to the “show, don’t tell” advice that you have probably heard so many times. Make sure to include plenty of anecdotes unique to that particular course. Your teacher can then pick and choose which to include - or maybe these will jog her mind to think of an entirely different anecdote to share!

Tip #3: Don’t worry if you didn’t get the highest grade from your favorite teacher!  We ask our students to address that type of scenario in the questionnaires (if applicable), because teachers generally respect a student who struggled but put forward their best effort. Odds are good that a student in this situation will have exhibited many other qualities worth praising beyond the actual grade itself. 

Tip #4: Get some help! Once our students complete their two separate questionnaires (one for each letter), we will review their responses and weigh in to identify the most important pieces of information: the details that will trigger their teachers’ fondest and most important memories of their time together in the classroom. We will also help our students fill in any major gaps that could resonate with college admissions committees. Once that questionnaire is complete, we help our students transform their answers – using only the information that our students have written – into a narrative format that is chock-full of informative information. Students working at home should ask their parents or maybe even a different teacher for help with this process. It can be useful to have another set of eyes to help differentiate compelling material from fluff, or even worse - excuses!

Students who follow the above guidelines will be in fantastic shape, no matter how many letters of recommendation their teachers need to write. Remember, though - this entire system will only work if you have positive anecdotes to share and a good experience to reference. If you are disrespectful, fail to do your homework, and chat with your neighbor instead of paying attention all year long, all the notes in the world are not going to help you!

We tackle this process with our ongoing clients in late spring of junior year, typically after spring break. However, we can help other students on a one-time basis through 11th grade strategy sessions. Book yours today!