The Critical Role of Recommendations


  • Know your Colleges' Recommendation Requirements
  • Recommendations Confirm the Validity of Your Candidacy
  • Make Sure They’re Well Written
  • Coddle Your Recommenders

To gain admission to a four-year institution outside the University of California, or California State University systems, will require recommendations. Generally, one of these recommendations will come from your high school guidance counselor, and usually, two, or possibly three teachers.  There are, of course, variations on what type of recommendations schools might want; Dartmouth and Davidson College, for instance, request a recommendation from one of your peers. Duke and Smith College even request a parental recommendation. Regardless of the number or kinds of recommendations you’ll need, don’t discount their importance.

According to Eva Ostrum, a former Yale Admissions Officer, “I loved seeing a student through another person’s eyes and learning what made him shine, both academically and personally.” (p.167, Ostrum, Eva, The Thinking Parent’s Guide to College Admissions, 2006).  In fact both types of recommendations, from your guidance counselor and your teachers, can weigh decisively upon your candidacy.

The admissions office wants to learn from your guidance counselor just how your school’s curriculum and grading policies work. It also seeks specific instances of how you have used your school’s facilities and resources, as well as your contributions to both the school and to the community.  With the average ratio of counselors to students in California at 1:949, the question arises, how do you assure that your counselor is aware of your contributions?  First, it’s a good idea to visit with him and her well before the fall of your senior year.  Second, a cover letter, which you’ll attach to your recommendation requests, should outline specific instances of how you benefitted from your high school experience, and how you gave back to the community in kind.  Separately, if something during your high school career affected your academic performance, you need to fully apprise your guidance counselor, and make sure it’s addressed clearly in the recommendation letter.

Be very selective about which teachers write your recommendations.  Preferably, you can find a teacher from a class in which you participated actively, enjoyed, and, as a consequence, did well. If in the class, you wrote a strong paper, or performed admirably on a test, all the better...  Additionally, the teacher should be someone with whom you have a solid rapport.

Of utmost importance, make certain that she can write well. It doesn’t matter how much a teacher might admire your academic gifts, if she can’t express herself well on paper it’s not going to benefit you. To raise the bar a bit more, it’s important that the recommender be experienced, preferably with five or more years of classroom experience—meaning she should already know how to write a decent recommendation and know their import--, and from a class you took in your junior or senior years.

Once you’ve obtained your recommenders, it’s now time for you to go to work. You want to make their job as easy as possible. Again, if you’ve written a major thesis in her class, or performed admirably on a test, you might want to submit the evidence of performance with your recommendation. It’s also a good idea for you to explain, in two sentences for each college, why each is a good match. Don’t assume the recommender will figure anything out by luck; make it clear.  Lastly, be considerate of the recommender’s time and effort.  Make sure you supply her with a pre-addressed, stamped envelope and separate recommendation for each college (if she is electing not to file your recommendations electronically), and that you get these to her 6-8 weeks before the recommendation is due.  This means, if you’re applying early action single choice to Stanford, you should have your recommendations submitted by the 2nd week of September, at the latest, as the Stanford EASC deadline is November 1st.

Lastly, once the recommendation process is done, be polite. Keep your recommenders informed of your progress, and send them thank you notes for their efforts. Sincere, polite people can never be overly recommended.