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Tips for Letters of Recommendation

Posted by on Friday, October 31, 2014 in Admissions Committee, Application Process, College Application Guides, The College Essay.

As we approach the first of many deadlines for our admissions application, I thought I might add to your perspective and talk about letters of recommendation. While the personal essay is your chance to shine using your own style and voice letters of recommendation are quite different: They present your counselors’ and teachers’ perspective and opinion about who you are and how you might contribute to the intellectual and social communities on our campus.

To end up on campus, you have to finish your application - and that means good letters of recommendation. (Photo: Vanderbilt Creative Services)

A question I am often asked is: How different is the counselor letter to the two teacher letters Vanderbilt requires?* In many cases, a counselor letter often serves as a macro view of who you are within the community at large. They often provide us a sense of your academic performance within your school as well as examples the impact you may have made on your school community. On the other hand, teachers provide us a micro view of you within the classroom. Are you one to consistently engage in discussion? How are you different from other top performing peers within your classroom? There is no guaranteed way to predict exactly what teachers and counselors will say about you, but here are three best practices in soliciting a solid letter of recommendation.

#1 – Choose a teacher that likes you.

You are probably chuckling and saying “duh” as you read this tip. In all fairness, ask yourself, why am I asking this teacher to write a letter for me? Chances are you have a great rapport with this teacher. They know you personally and have insight into your academic passions. If so, this is a great indication that you have chosen…wisely. However, if your first thought is “well, I received an A in the class” I urge you to think again. If the letter begins “[Name of applicant] received an A in my class,” it is highly likely the letter will be of no help to the admissions committee, especially if the letter begins with an obvious fact about you.

#2 – Ask the teacher or counselor in-person whether they would be available to compose a letter of recommendation.

In the age of e-mail and e-invitations, it is very easy to hide behind the wall of the internet. Remember that your teachers and counselors are people too. Every letter written is evidence of their dedication to your success and time away from people they love. Throughout your life, you will be asking others to vouch for you in some form.

Instead of allowing the Common Application or Universal College Application system to e-mail an invitation for a letter of recommendation, ask your teacher in-person. By asking in-person you make no assumption that they have the time to compose a distinctive letter and you are inviting them to decline. I am sure that most do indeed gladly accept your request and will appreciate the human touch you have brought to an increasingly automated world.

#3 – Do your homework: What are (were) your major distinctions in the classroom with this teacher?

If you are asking a particular teacher for a recommendation, chances are that others will be as well. Some teachers will ask for resumes and lists of your activities which you should certainly prepare in advance and present to them. However, go the extra step. List the achievements and distinctions the teacher made with regards to your work in his or her class. These superlatives can help jog the memory of a teacher who is writing multiple letters of recommendation for many great students. Once they review your specialized list, they are likely to remember what makes you different from other students. Essentially you want to make the job of writing a letter as easy as possible for your teacher.

In the end, regardless of the outcome of your college acceptances, be sure to thank your recommenders. Sometimes all it takes is a thank you card with a quick note of gratitude to indicate how you appreciate the time the authors took away from their busy lives to better your chances in the university admissions process.  For high school seniors reading this, if you have not already done so, you need to collect yourself and get on asking right away. For juniors and even prospective transfer applicants, start thinking critically about candidates for your letters. Remember you have many choices in how you present yourself to universities, including whom you chose to author letters of recommendations.

*First-year applicants to Vanderbilt are required to submit one letter of recommendation from their high school counselor or school administrator (i.e. principal) and two teacher letters of recommendation from their core subject areas (e.g. math, science, social science/history, English, and/or foreign language) in order to apply for admission through either the Common Application or the Universal College Application.

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  • Stephanie

    November 1st, 2014

    Would you be automatically not considered for admission if only one of your two teacher recommendations is from a teacher of a core class and the other is an elective teacher?

  • Jay Watson

    November 3rd, 2014

    Hi Stephanie, You’re welcome to submit an additional letter of recommendation from a teacher who is outside of the core subject areas, but we do request that you submit two from teachers who from core areas.

  • Tay

    November 23rd, 2014

    Vanderbilt requires only 2 essays from core teachers, but will an extra one – from a core teacher or another adult – improve my admission chances? (assuming all recommendations are positive and of high quality)

  • Jay Watson

    November 24th, 2014

    Hi Tay, thanks for the question. Simply submitting more recommendations, even if they are good, will not improve your chances of admission. We use recommendations to learn more about you and how you would contribute to the Vanderbilt community. If you believe that another recommender would provide valuable insight that isn’t included in your other recommendations, then it may be a good addition to your application.

  • Tay

    November 24th, 2014

    Ok, thanks for the clarification! I already have 3, so that’s how many I will submit.

  • Jaye Marshall

    December 10th, 2014

    Do the recommendation letters have to be written by current academic teachers or can they be written by previous academic teachers?

  • Jay Watson

    December 12th, 2014

    Hi Jaye, good question! Your recommendations do not have to come from current teachers. Choose teachers who can really speak to your academic performance and personality. Thanks!

  • Lauren

    January 5th, 2015

    Does the counselor letter have to be in addition to what was prompted of them on Common App?

  • Jay Watson

    January 7th, 2015

    Hi Lauren, thanks for your question. No, the counselor letter you submit through the Common Application is what we’re looking for. Thanks!

  • Kimberly doud

    December 15th, 2015

    What/how many extra curricular activities do you look for in an application? What can I do to make my application more likely to be accepted?

  • Jay Watson

    December 15th, 2015

    Thanks for your question, Kimberly. We do not look for a specific number or type of extracurricular activity. Instead, we’re looking to your extracurricular involvement to see how you spend your time outside of school to better understand how you might contribute to the Vanderbilt community. For more information and tips on how to approach extracurriculars on your application, you might want to look at these blog posts: &

  • Sara

    April 13th, 2016

    Would it be ok to get one of my letters of recommendation from a sophomore year teacher? Or is it better to have both be from junior/senior year?

  • Jay Watson

    April 18th, 2016

    We’re looking for letters of recommendation that help us to better understand you as an individual within the context of the classroom and your school community. If it’s a good fit, then it’s certainly fine to include a letter of recommendation from a sophomore year teacher.

  • Madison Clark

    September 20th, 2017

    I have been taking classes full time at a community college for my junior and senior years of high school (and part time my sophomore year.) Would it be better for me to submit letters of recommendation from teachers from my freshman and sophomore years who taught at my high school (they also all no longer teach at my high school aside from one) or would it be better to submit letters from my professors from the community college who taught my core content subjects but were not a part of my high school?

  • Jay Watson

    September 21st, 2017

    Thanks for your question, Madison. In the situation you describe, it’s best to have the recommendations come from your last two years of high school — even if they are from the dual enrollment courses you are taking. If you have more questions about your particular situation, you can discuss them with your Vanderbilt admissions counselor