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UT Austin’s New Approach to Recommendation Letters

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Elizabeth Heaton

Written by Elizabeth Heatonon May 6th, 2024

I began my admissions career at the University of Pennsylvania, where I chaired university selection committees, evaluated potential athletic recruits as one of the school's athletics liaisons, and oversaw the university's portfolio of admissions publications. I also served as second chair in the selection committee for the school's flagship interdisciplinary Jerome Fisher Program in Management & Technology. A frequent contributor to USA TODAY and The Huffington Post and a graduate of Cornell University, I bring exceptional skills to the craft of essay writing paired with experience reading and evaluating thousands of admissions essays. I can offer expert advice on a wide range of college admissions topics, from colleges' expectations for high school curriculum choices and standardized test scores to choosing the right extracurricular activities and essay topics. Prior to joining the University of Pennsylvania, I worked as a public relations professional and served for a decade as a member of the Cornell Alumni Admissions Ambassador Network.
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by Elizabeth Heaton, former admissions officer at University of Pennsylvania In the past month, we’ve seen a handful of colleges, many with single-digit admissions rates, announce they are reinstating standardized test requirements for the coming admissions cycle. While University of Texas, Austin is among those institutions requiring scores, we want to call attention to a different new policy at UT Austin we’re hoping will become a trend. Specifically: "Applicants submitting letters of recommendation will be strongly encouraged to provide those letters from sources outside of their high school. This reduces the burden of this work on high school teachers and counselors…"  What is exciting about this? Many applications, especially to schools that turn away more applicants than they admit, require a recommendation letter from a school counselor. One or two additional letters of recommendation from teachers in core academic subjects—math, science, English, history/social science, or world language—may also be mandatory. Seems simple enough, but it’s not always the best option for every applicant, and it can be a challenge for schools to provide all of these letters. Students who are much more involved outside of school than in school, including those who have part-time jobs, are active in community service, or play a sport not offered at the school, might most benefit from this new option. Those with strong interests outside of core academic subjects, such as art, entrepreneurship, or music, may blossom when they pursue those areas outside of high school. Finally, students with non-school responsibilities, such as those who must work to help support their families or spend time taking care of younger siblings or other household members and tasks, can now ask an employer or even a family member to write on their behalf. This new policy also lessens the burden on counselors and teachers. Most school counselors have too many tasks on their plates, from students’ social and emotional well-being, to IEP and 504 plan creation and management, to running test sites for the ACT and the College Board (a “non-profit” making more than one billion dollars annually using free labor from counselors and teachers). Many school counselors are also responsible for too many students to know them well. Teachers of subjects taught in junior and senior year are often asked to write a significant number of recommendation letters on top of their teaching responsibilities. More popular teachers will sometimes manage the workload by limiting the number of letters they write, an understandable strategy, but one that can leave students with even fewer choices for recommendation writers. It’s important to note that it is not required that all UT Austin recommendation letters now come from outside school, so students can still use more traditional sources like core academic teachers. But it’s great to have the option to ask an employer, a Scout leader, a coach, or a religious leader, to name a few possible letter writers. Of course, all of this is a bit less impactful if UT Austin is the only school to introduce this new policy. That’s why we’re hoping that widening the pool of recommendation writers catches on at every university in this country. Because policy that supports students with fewer resources or more commitments outside of school, and also makes life easier for teachers and counselors, is a trend we can all embrace.

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