Letters of Recommendation
One night last year I was pouring over Sam’s application for admission to Vanderbilt. In terms of Vanderbilt’s applicant pool, he was fairly average. Solid academic achievement with test scores in the 90th percentile, but nothing about the numbers jumped out at me as extraordinary. I don’t remember Sam’s essay, but I’m sure it was good if not unusually creative. However, as I flipped to the back of the file my eyes landed on his first letter of recommendation. In the letter his physics teacher said, “If Sam would have been around 2000 years ago and Joseph and Mary needed a sitter for baby Jesus, they’d hire Sam. You just trust him implicitly.” Woah. That’s the type of statement that makes me do a double take. The letter went on to sing Sam’s praises both in and out of the classroom. The essence of the letter was this is one student you need to have on your campus. Prior to reading his letters of recommendation I intended to advocate that Sam be placed on our waitlist. Sam received an offer of admission, though, in no small part due to the overwhelming support proffered in his letters of recommendation. As exemplified by Sam’s situation, these recommendations can make a significant impact in our admissions process.
We ask for two letters of recommendation from teachers in core subject areas (math, history, English, foreign language, etc.) and one letter from a school counselor. We are looking for these letters to humanize you and to tell us something we can’t find out through your transcripts and test scores.
- Ask teachers who truly like you; it should be obvious whether or not your have a rapport with someone or not, trust your gut
- Give teachers plenty of time (at least 2 weeks) to write a great letter
- Provide each recommender with your resume and a list of the schools you’ve chosen to apply to; have a conversation with them about what kinds of experiences you’re looking forward to in college
- You may submit supplemental letters of recommendation from someone such as an employer, a coach, or a pastor/priest/rabbi; do not submit more than two supplemental letters
- Send your recommenders a written thank you note; a great letter takes time and they do not have to do this for you
In your letters I am looking for recommenders to D.I.S.H about you: Details, Intangibles, School Fit, and High School Context.
- Details: story snippets, anecdotes, memories the recommender has of you as a student
- Intangibles: immeasurable personal qualities such as attitude in class, independent judgment, contributions to discussion, perseverance, reaction to setbacks or criticism, creativity, maturity, confidence, interest in sharing ideas, willingness to take intellectual risks, curiosity, level of engagement, or obstacles overcome
- School Fit: does the recommender see a good fit between who you are in their classroom and who you would be on the Vanderbilt campus?
- High School Context: comparison to peers (both academic and intangible comparisons)
These hints and suggestions above are from my personal experiences, but in no way prescriptive for every student.