Weekly College Column

The Role of Teacher Recommendations

Periodically, I’ll be sharing articles written by other independent educational consultants on topics of interest to families navigating the college admissions process.

Today’s column is written by my good friend and professional colleague, Marla Platt. Marla Platt, MBA of AchieveCoach College Consulting, is a college consultant based in Sudbury, MA. With over 14 years of experience, Marla has worked with hundreds of students and parents by offering personalized guidance on the college search, essay, interview and the application process. You can reach Marla at marla@achievecoach.com  or 978-440-8210. 

Today Marla will tackle the importance of Letters of Recommendation. 

When colleges talk about holistic admissions, it means they are looking to learn as much as they can about applicants eager to join their college community.  Beyond course grades; college essays; extracurricular activity involvement; and (sometimes) SAT/ACT scores, the Admissions Office cares about how students show up in the broader context of their school or classroom.  In addition to their school counselor’s recommendation, colleges commonly ask students to supply a recommendation from an academic subject teacher.  A solid teacher recommendation provides admission readers with  perspective about student motivation, potential, and character.

A glimpse into a student’s academic potential and character 

First and foremost, admission readers want to learn about how an applicant engages with academic subject content. Does the student show a keen interest in classroom topics and conversation?  How well does the student grasp deeper concepts?  Maybe the student actively supports their classmates’ understanding of the material through thoughtful conversation or clarifying explanations.

An insightful recommendation considers what a classroom member offers their fellow student community and, by extension, might offer their college classmates.  Admission readers will be looking beyond basic expectations (ex. works hard; hands in assignments on time), hoping for evidence about how the student distinguishes themselves among peers.

For a solid recommendation, be memorable

Surprise! The strongest recommendation may not necessarily come from the teacher awarding the highest grade! A good recommendation serves up insight that can develop when students seek extra help; show a commitment to learning, or focus on improved performance and solid engagement with the material.  Earning the “A” always looks great, but doing so without demonstrating interest in classroom life and content may not give teachers a whole lot to draw from.

Throughout high school, (and especially at the start of junior year!) students should aim to be “positively memorable”: aware of how they “show up” in class, their successes, and challenges, along with what they share with classmates. Students: Ask yourselves, “How do I positively stand out in the group?”

To help their teacher frame a recommendation, a student might offer up examples of what they enjoyed about class or some way the course shaped them. And some teachers ask students to respond to a questionnaire to help kick off their recommendation, asked to weigh in on questions like:

  • What did you get out of my class this past year?
  • How have you contributed to your class community?
  • Name a topic or project that inspired your learning?
  • What are your college goals?

Which teachers to ask — and how many?

Colleges generally value letters from more recent teachers, typically of full-year 11th grade courses rather than single-semester classes as these teachers often will have more observations to draw from.

There is no one-size-fits-all across application requirements, and the same applies to colleges’ preferences around recommendations.  Some schools request letters from two core course teachers while others request a single, but optional letter. Yet others want no recommendations!

Be thoughtful

It’s worth noting that solid rec letters require lead time!  The courteous student will ask well in advance – ideally in person – and be sure to sincerely thank their teacher for their time and support. And of course, it’s always thoughtful when students circle back later on with their teachers and share the exciting news about where they will be heading off to college the following year!

Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte and President of Bierer College Consulting. Send questions to: leesbierer@gmail.comwww.bierercollegeconsulting.com.



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