Tips for Letters of Recommendation
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.
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.