I’ve read – by my count – over 10,000 letters of recommendation for college applicants.

I could be way off with my calculations, but – if I am – I’m probably under-counting.  I don’t bring this up to brag – I am, by no means, a record holder.  There are many in the college admissions profession who can claim double or triple that amount.

I share this bit of data to emphasize that my former colleagues are not overly impressed that Brad is “a nice young man”, and they are not convinced that the person writing the letter should be telling us that he “will do well at your institution”.   They are reading volumes of such statements and – by the middle of the application review process – are scanning, skimming and glancing at them.

So, why do admissions officers ask for letters of recommendation?  I spend days debating over whether to ask Mr. Jones, my science teacher who went to Yale, or Ms. Dawkins, my karate instructor who has known me since I was 7.

Good question, Ashley.  Who did you eventually ask?


Good answer.

Admissions officers DO value letters of recommendation.  They provide narrative (along with your essay, interview and extra-curricular resume) to the cold data provided by grades, course curriculum and standardized test results.  They either compliment, enhance or contradict the other information provided in the admission folder.  They matter.

But they should talk about you in specifics, not in general terms.  They should be from adults that know you, like you and respect you.

In many ways, letters of recommendation are the piece of the admission puzzle of which you have least control.  But there are steps you can take so that your letters of recommendation show your admissions officers who you are, and do so in the most positive light.

  • Play by the college’s rules.  If they want two references from teachers, don’t provide a reference from an employer.
  • Unless it is in addition to the two references from teachers.
  • When in doubt, choose the person who knows you best.  They are your best bet to explain why Brad is a nice young man and why he will be a benefit to my college.  Those are the questions we want answered.
  • Who can say something about you that isn’t “said” by your transcript?
  • Get to know your guidance counselor.  Many colleges require a guidance recommendation and many high schools have a standard policy that they include one.
  • Give your references sufficient time to write their letters.  Respect their time.  If you ask me for a reference that is due tomorrow, I will not be mentioning your excellent time-management skills in my letter!
  • Also provide your references with any specific criteria that the college requires in terms of the letters of recommendation.

And make sure the reference knows what college or colleges to which he is writing a recommendation.  Maybe twice a year, I would receive a recommendation that would tell me what a great addition Caitlin would be for University X.

Unfortunately, I worked at College Y.

As always, I welcome your comments and questions.  Please feel free to email me at info@cc4therestofus.com, call or text me at 908-403-3819, join me on Facebook on “College Counseling for the Rest of Usand join me on Twitter at @MichaelCCR.   And now on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/user/CCRMichael?feature=mhee.