Q: What is the role of the recommendation letter in the application process?
When I was an admissions officer at Tufts, I actually called an English teacher in Iowa to thank her for writing such helpful recommendations. She’d written letters for four students, and captured each kid in a way that evocatively highlighted his or her unique engagement in the classroom, such that I could vividly picture how each would contribute to the intellectual community on our campus. All four were admitted. So—why did those letters matter?
Learning About the Student Behind the Grades
An effective teacher recommendation can merge academic data (such as grades and test scores) and personal qualities (which are highlighted in essays and extracurricular activities) to help the admissions officer understand the student behind the many pieces of the application.
A teacher who knows your child well can share anecdotes and examples to demonstrate how your child engages in the classroom community. In what ways is he curious and inquisitive? How does she learn from and contribute to her peers’ knowledge? What are his intellectual strengths, quirks, and soft spots? This goes beyond simply repeating the final grade or counting the number of times she raised her hand to actually capturing her academic personality.
Understanding Skills and Strengths vs. Accomplishments
Ideally the teacher who writes this letter thinks highly of your student. But a letter that gushes about the student’s leadership on the swim team, or how everyone looks up to him as evidenced by his Prom King election, is a missed opportunity. Colleges are hoping to get a sense of how a student engages academically—that means specific skills and strengths in an intellectual context, not generic superlatives or a glowing report about extracurricular success.
Though what the teacher writes is beyond your control, your student certainly has control of whom and how she asks for recommendations. For further advice on which teachers to ask for a recommendation, check out my colleague Beth Heaton’s recent blog in USA Today. We will offer logistical guidance on how to ask for and manage teacher recommendations in future blog posts.