Some components of the college application are visible to the student: the essay, the application form, the activity list. Some components, however, are “invisible”: the counselor recommendation, the teacher recommendation, and demographic information.
Naturally, students and parents put more weight on the visible parts of the application, as they know what those components look like. However, the “invisible” portions of students’ applications—especially the recommendations—carry an incredible amount of weight. Recommendations are generally written by teachers or counselors, whom admissions officers consider their peers, so they put a lot of stock into what teachers and counselors say. Also, recommendations are usually the only outside validation that admissions officers have of what students say about themselves in essays or on the activity list.
Signet’s CEO, Jay Bacrania, interviews Beth Onofry, one of our Admissions Consultants, a former admissions officer from Dartmouth, and a full-time college counselor in a non-profit organization. If there’s anyone that knows about recommendations, it’s Beth!
Can you talk a little about the recommendations required on the application (teacher, counselor, and outside) and the differences between them?
For the common application and similar formats, which most students will be using, you need a guidance counselor recommendation and two teacher recommendations from different subject areas.
The counselor recommendation is meant to be an overview of the student, and puts the student in the context of their school. It provides information about the student as a member of the community, the kind of activities they’re involved with, their character and integrity, and the overall picture of what the student has done with their high school experience.
Teacher recommendations are intended to be more academic. They give a sense of what the student is like in terms of personality, how they approach their work, and of course speak to their academic performance. A lot of standard advice encourages one teacher from English or history and one from math or science to show range. I don’t disagree with that strategy, but I do believe all recommendations are best done by teachers who know the student well.
Then there are additional recommendations, which some schools accept. These should only be provided if they offer additional perspective on a student—for example, if the writer worked with a student in a summer program, internship, or other activity. Occasionally it’s someone connected to the college itself who has context about how the student would fit into the community. Keep in mind that providing extra information means more work for admissions officers, so be judicious with these supplemental materials.
For students and parents, it probably feels like any extra information provides additional perspective on who the student really is. How do you guide them toward making those decisions judiciously?
Think about what purpose recommendations serve in the larger context of the application. The application includes both quantitative and qualitative information. Quantitative information is factual information: GPA, test scores, and classes taken. Qualitative information is more narrative and nuanced, focusing on a student’s personality and identity, and includes the essay(s), interview (at some schools), and recommendations.
Understanding the role of recommendations is important, but families also need to recognize that they don’t stand alone. Colleges usually look at the factual information and then some of the personal information (like the essay) first, and then add in external perspectives on the student (the recommendations). Recommendations can either highlight or reiterate information schools already have, or shed new light on who a student really is. A lot of times the personal essay is less academic and more about extracurricular experience, so recommendations can provide more context for a student’s academics.
With that in mind, how can students be strategic in considering how the components of their application tell a story about themselves?
For example, if a student writes an essay about being quarterback of the football team, it’s not necessarily helpful to then provide a recommendation from the coach, because that area has been covered. On the other hand, it could be important to have the coach’s perspective if the student has a unique mentoring relationship with him or her.
When choosing who to ask for recommendations, students should think about their relationships with their teachers, and what they have accomplished in specific classes. One option is to choose a class where the student is performing exceptionally well. Another is to choose a class where the student previously struggled, but overcame challenges to be successful. A teacher who knows your student and their work well is always a good choice. What your student wants to pursue in college may also impact who provides the recommendations.
Colleges want students to put their best foot forward, so apply that thinking to all pieces of the application. The best recommendations share specific information instead of generalities. Those details will stay with the reader.
When you ask someone to write a recommendation, you assume they’ll write something good about you. As an admissions officer, what is meaningful if all these letters are generally positive?
Students should know that they’re not penalized by factors out of their control: some teachers may be better writers than others. That said, the more specific the recommendation, the better. (If a recommendation won’t be positive, the teacher should decline to write it.)
Speaking to a student’s genuine interest and effort, the unique role they play in class (e.g. leads discussion, powerful writer, asks thoughtful questions), is helpful. Students may consider reminding teachers as to why they asked them to write the recommendation in a short conversation or letter, but they shouldn’t try to unduly influence what teachers write.
Students also have control over how well teachers know them, and they can make an effort to get to know their teachers. Even introverts, who may have a harder time speaking up, can ask questions after class. It’s important to cultivate relationships, not just to maximize college admissions outcomes, but to improve a student’s academic experience as well.
Can you shed more light on what admissions officers get from letters that they don’t get from other parts of the application?
Letters are subjective, so it’s hard to distill them into a single benefit. One way that letters can sway an application is context. What is a student like in relation to their peers—in the classroom and in the student body? Teachers and counselors may also be able to speak to students’ home environments, or other challenges they’re facing, that might not show through in the quantitative parts of the application.
Two students with the same grade may have a very different impact in the classroom, and impact is something admissions officers are trying to discern. They want students with a presence on campus, who will be excited to explore the curriculum and have engaging conversations with peers.
Recommendations also show how genuine a student is. Are they pushing themselves in a positive way or just skating by? How would they handle a more challenging environment in college? A student doesn’t need to be the best of the best to be truly exceptional; admissions officers are trying to get a sense of who students are as human beings, not walking GPAs.
I keep coming back to the principle that we can’t fashion the student in the image of a college. Rather, students have to do what is meaningful to them, and have the application be a strategic, positive reflection of who they are. There’s no way to game the system.
Absolutely. The recommendation isn’t the result of a single interaction; it’s the culmination of an experience over time. There’s a broader story behind it that makes it hard to fake, and that’s why these letters are helpful. That should be reassuring to students, because the goal is to be a reflection of who they really are. Of course, they should choose the teachers strategically, but the relationships they have cultivated are the product of many experiences and interactions over time.
Suppose I’m a student, and my dad’s friend is a senator, whom I’ve met once. Should I ask the senator to write one of my recommendations?
In general, no. No matter how famous or connected the person is, if they don’t know you well, their recommendation isn’t going to be that beneficial. If, on the other hand, someone with “clout” can also speak to who you are, then that could be appropriate (and also fun for the admissions office!).
How do you advise families where students are unremarkable academically?
You have a few options. If you’re in your junior year, your experience isn’t over. You can wait until senior year to ask for a recommendation if you’re not submitting applications too early in the fall, and you can work on developing relationships with teachers in the interim. You can have teachers write solid, general recommendations, and highlight who you are in other parts of the application. Many schools want upstanding students who are solid in the classroom, and it’s okay for your recommendations to reflect that. A student should still try to choose teachers who would write the best recommendations for them.
With respect to the counselor recommendation, does it matter if the counselor doesn’t know the student especially well?
We don’t penalize students for being in big schools where their counselors don’t have the chance to build personal relationships with every student. I think knowing that can take some of the pressure off of students and parents. The knowledge that a student excelled without a lot of guidance can also be informative, because it might show that they are independently driven and self-directed. At worst, it’s a missed opportunity to learn about the student, but admissions officers are pretty savvy at being able to read between the lines as to what a school, and a student’s experience in that context, are like.
If admissions officers feel like they need a piece of information they don’t have, they’ll call, and that’s also a chance for counselors to provide extra context or spend a little more time talking about the student.
What recommendations that you’ve written do you feel best about?
I feel best about recommendations where I know the students well and understand their story, and where the students also know themselves really well. My goal is to tell their story from another perspective. If their performance and choices reflect the things they care about, the letter writes itself.
It seems like we’re really talking about behaviors that are in a student’s best interest, such as forging mentorships with their teachers, that will also help them with recommendations. The recommendation is the result, but students can over time build the relationships that foster great letters.
I’d add, as someone who has been able to work with students over a number of years, that it’s really about growth and not perfection. And that growth can start from any point. What admissions officers are looking for is a trajectory of development, which will help them see where students want to go next, to determine whether their school is a natural fit for that student’s journey. So the student doesn’t have to be perfect in the class that they choose. They should approach the recommendation with a sense of honesty and self-awareness. Think of the people involved as being part of the “dream team” to offer support along the way.
Beth Onofry is the Deputy Director of Academic Programs and Student Support at the TEAK Fellowship in New York City. The mission of the TEAK Fellowship is to unlock access to outstanding education and transformative experiences for exceptional NYC students, who use these opportunities to change their lives and the world around them. Prior to joining TEAK, Beth worked as Assistant Director and Senior Assistant Director of Admissions at Dartmouth College. Beth graduated from Dartmouth College and earned Masters’ Degrees in Education and School Counseling from Harvard University and LIU Brooklyn, respectively.