Dos and Don’ts of College Recommendations

When high school students fill out their college applications, they tend to prioritize the more visible components: the essay, the application form, and the activity list. They’re often surprised to hear that one of the more invisible parts of the application can carry a tremendous amount of weight.

We’re talking, of course, about college recommendations.

Teachers or counselors are typically responsible for writing recommendations to admissions officers—and since admissions officers consider these individuals their peers, they value their input highly. Some colleges also accept additional recommendations written by other people connected to the student who can provide different perspectives.

College recommendations are an important part of your student’s college admissions package, so it’s important to get them right. Here are the top dos and don’ts of securing recommendations for college applications.

Tips for Better College Recommendations

First, let’s take a look at the dos of obtaining a great college recommendation:

Do think about the recommendation in the larger context of the application

College applications consist of both quantitative and qualitative information. Quantitative information (e.g., GPA, test scores) is straightforward and factual, whereas qualitative information is more subjective and nuanced. Recommendations fall into the latter category. A college recommendation should either reinforce information admissions officers already have or provide a fresh perspective on the student.

Do cultivate strong relationships

Detailed and specific recommendations are generally the most effective, and students have some control over how well the teachers writing the college recommendations know them. Students should make an effort during their high school years to cultivate solid connections with their teachers—not only for the sake of the recommendation, but also to maximize their academic experience.

Do choose additional recommendations strategically

If a student plans to provide an additional recommendation (i.e., one not written by a teacher or counselor), they should think strategically about who they’re asking to write it. Will this additional recommendation offer a different perspective on them? If not, it may be best to leave it out. Providing extra information means more work for admissions officers, so it’s wise to be judicious with supplemental materials. 

Avoid These College Recommendation Mistakes

Now, here are a few essential don’ts for students to keep in mind: 

Don’t restrict recommendations to where students performed well

There’s a common assumption that students should only get recommendations from teachers in classes where they performed exceptionally well. But believe it or not, another good strategy is to choose a class where they previously struggled and overcame challenges to be successful. A teacher who has been close to the student—and their work—is always a great choice.

Don’t prioritize clout

No matter how famous or connected a person is, their recommendation won’t be very beneficial unless they know the student well. However, if a VIP can speak specifically about your student, it may be worthwhile to ask them for an additional recommendation.

Don’t wait too long to ask

Students should give the people they’re requesting recommendations from the courtesy of advanced notice. A good rule of thumb is to ask teachers 1-2 months before the college application deadline. (Counselors are more likely to have specific parameters in place around timing.) Don’t be afraid to follow up with teachers politely as needed—teachers are busy, and friendly reminders never hurt.  

If your student needs support with their college application, Signet’s team of experienced admissions consultants can help navigate the college admissions process from beginning to end. Contact us today to learn more

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