There’s no way around it; you’re going to have to ask there are a number of questions you should answer before asking someone for a college recommendation.
1.“Who?” The first question you need to ask yourself is “Who should I ask for a recommendation?” I recall reading an application for University at Buffalo’s (SUNY) law school application stating that you applicant should ask someone who knows you well, rather than someone who’s important and/or famous but doesn’t know you very well. I really liked the next line, which was to the effect of “Using references from important or influential people who really don’t know you leads us to the unfortunate conclusion that you think the personal influence of your references is more important than your academic merit.” You go, Buffalo! J
For example, don’t ask for a reference from your Congressperson or Senator unless you actually know your congressperson or Senator (unless you are applying to West Point or Annapolis, in which case, I believe you have to be recommended by a member of Congress). A reference from Barbara Boxer or Dianne Feinstein saying something general like “Dale is a fine young resident of the State of California with a great potential for learning” is going to be much less persuasive than "Dale has been a student in my English classes for the past three years, writes more cogently and persuasively than most adults, and, quite frankly, is the most impressive student I’ve had in any of my classes in my 25 years of teaching.”
Do you see the difference? One’s a generic “I don’t know this kid, but I think his parents donated to my campaign, so I had an intern draft a letter using our generic college reference template.” The other shows the writer actually knows the applicant, what he or she thinks of the applicant, the basis of knowledge and qualifications to make that judgment, and is extremely favorable to the applicant. In other words, it’s better for Ms. Nobody, one of your high school teachers, to give you a reference that shows she knows you well and is impressed with you, than to get a generic “Yeah, this kid’s nice and would be a pretty good student at your college” from the President, a Senator, an important business person, or a Hollywood star. Ms. Nobody would be able to show why her opinion is valid (an English teacher with decades of experience certainly should be a good judge of a student’s writing ability, and she’s known you for years), whereas Barack Obama and Barbara Boxer probably haven’t read much of your work and don’t know you well. There’s a George Carlin bit that addresses this issue – it goes something like “Do you have a product that doesn’t work well, falls apart at high speeds, is dangerous, and has possible side effects? I can get people to buy it because I’m a FAMOUS PERSON!” Trust me - even though I’m not famous J - you don’t want admissions officers to think you’re a defective product a famous person is promoting.
Don’t get me wrong – if you know high-level government officials well, and they have actually read your writing (or seen other work), had intellectual conversations with you, and they like you, USE THEM AS REFERENCES. The same goes for any other person whose name would impress most people – if you really know an important Hollywood producer who’s seen your work, and you’re looking to major in film at NYU or UCLA, definitely use that reference before asking your 11th-grade history teacher for a reference.
Finally, don’t lose track of the obvious; you need someone who is willing and able to write you a GREAT reference, not just “damn you with faint praise,” to paraphrase Shakespeare. Don’t be afraid to ASK a potential reference if he or she can write a reference that specifically addresses your abilities that they’re in a position to judge (see the “What?” section below), and if they can give you a really good recommendation. If they say “Yes,” that’s great, assuming you’ve chosen well.
It’ s not likely that a teacher in whose class you are doing well will give you a mediocre recommendation, but you never know. When I was in high school, I received a fairly mediocre recommendation from one teacher, even though I got close to perfect grades in his class. To be fair, the areas where he rated me low were actually areas where I needed improvement that aren’t reflected in grades – e.g., “leadership.” I still think he could have just suggested I ask someone else, but I’m sure he believed he was just being honest. Oh well; it just meant I didn’t win some academic prize, which maybe I didn’t deserve to win. But I digress.
If you’re using a recommendation form in which the college, scholarship program or whatever, lists the areas in which your recommendations should rate you (in my case with that teacher, it was a form with 1 to 10 scales for a number of characteristics the scholarship program looked for in a winner), just ask the potential recommendation what he or she thinks of your abilities in those areas. If not, just ask the teacher, boss, coach, or classmate (many colleges require a “peer recommendation” from one or more of your classmates) what he or she thinks of your academic ability, work ethic, personality, morals, etc. If the answers are good, then ask if he or she would be willing to attest to that in a recommendation. If the person says “No,” or won’t give you a direct answer (e.g. “Well, that depends on a number of complex factors, and it’s hard to say without thinking about it…” or “Well, how do YOU think you’re doing in my class?”), PLEASE ask someone else. Anything that isn’t a “yes” is a “no,” and should be treated as such.
2.“What?” “What should my recommendations say?” is the next question you should ask. As stated above, a reference that shows the person writing the reference actually knows you well, and thinks you're talented, hard-working, and a good person, and cites to specific examples of your how hard-working, talented, and morally good you are, is going to be much better than a general “He/she is a nice kid and you should let him/her attend your university.”
Beyond that, your references should be consistent with the other information on your application. Think of the reference as puzzle pieces that need to fit the rest of your application. If you’re applying to M.I.T. for electrical engineering, you should get recommendations from your math and physics teachers; your English teacher is going to be, at best, a secondary recommendation. Don’t get me wrong; your English teacher’s vouching for the fact that you can explain technical issues in terms understandable to a layperson would be extremely helpful, but M.I.T.’s engineering programs aren’t likely to admit someone who didn’t pass physics with flying colors. Your physics teacher would be in the best position to evaluate your knowledge of science. Your English teacher’s information about your math and science ability would most likely be second-hand, and he or she probably wouldn’t remember enough of whatever math or physics he or she studied to evaluate YOUR performance.
Conversely, if you’re planning to major in literary studies at a liberal arts college (say, Williams College), they’re going to be a little confused or concerned about why you chose recommendations from your physics teacher, but not your English or foreign language teachers., since your language teachers would be in the best position to evaluate your ability to handle a literary studies curriculum.
For “peer recommendations” from your classmates, you should be proactive and give them suggestions as to what to write (this may also be necessary for work supervisors, but your teachers probably already know how to write decent recommendations). If you Google “sample college recommendation,” or similar terms you can find many suggestions as to what should be in a reference, sample letters to use as a “template” (a guide you can copy) for the recommendation(s), and ideas on what to write.
Generally, your “peers” (i.e., your friends from school) who write recommendations for you should be willing, and able to write a letter detailing what they’ve personally seen, heard, or otherwise experienced that showed them how hard you work on academics, sports, extracurriculars, or a job outside school. They should also include their high opinion of your morals, and why they think you’d be a good student at the college or university to which you are applying. Basically, the recommendation should focus on your abilities related to school.
Any such recommendations should also include brief statements of who THEY are, since the admissions officer(s) reading it will want an answer to the question “I’m glad you like Chad, but who the heck are YOU, anyway?” It doesn’t have to be much, but it should explain how your “peer” knows you and some of that person’s achievements. For example, “I am in the same honors and AP classes as Dale at Super Rigorous Elite High School in Yuppieland, California. We are both on the debate and water polo teams, and have been to the state championships in both. I am the salutatorian of this year’s senior class; Chad, of course, is valedictorian.”) That’s much better than, say, “I’m a classmate of Dale’s at SREHS. Dale’s class valedictorian and pretty awesome. You should let him go to your school.”
Finally, you should be prepared to help your friends answer questions dealing with your weaknesses. The best, although most predictable, way to handle such a problem is to suggest to your classmate that perhaps you have just TOO MUCH of a good quality. Perhaps you are a perfectionist, and sometimes it makes you work too long and too hard on some projects. Perhaps you are too kind and generous, and as a result are sometimes too nice to people who really don’t deserve your kindness. Perhaps you’re just TOO willing to help other people. I’m certainly not asking anyone to lie, but it seems to me that just about anyone can have a fault that’s really just a distortion of a positive quality.
If you have other serious character flaws, well, you really should work on them, and it’s a true friend who points them out to you at the risk of annoying you. However, a recommendation sent to a college admissions officer really isn’t where your friend or peer should bring them up. If your peer seriously believes you have problems that simply must be mentioned to any college admissions office, either you have problems to solve before you head off to college (there’s no shame in that), or this person is your enemy and you REALLY should have chosen someone else. If your potential “peer reference” isn’t willing to assure you of a good reference (and, if it doesn’t violate the rules, agree not to send any reference you haven’t seen and approved), definitely do NOT use that person as a reference.
Even if there’s no emergency, a last-minute reference request isn’t going to impress someone you’ve asked for a recommendation (they’re probably not going to rave about your great planning skills ;-) ), and might interfere with the potential reference’s weekend or evening plans. I wouldn’t want my teacher writing a recommendation while she was thinking about her trip to France, for which she would be leaving in about an hour. It would be a rush job , meaning she might leave out important things she otherwise would have put in, or it might have spelling and grammatical errors that would go undetected. I wouldn’t want college officials to think “Well, if this kid’s TEACHERS can’t write very well, what can we expect from HIM?”
So waiting my cause you to get a scribbled recommendation that doesn’t say very much, or may not even get it on time. That would be sad, since it’s completely avoidable. Just ask early, and every few days, check on the progress.
As I’ve mentioned before, every college admissions, financial aid, and registrar’s office worker who deals with students has the same sign on the office wall. It reads “Failure to plan on YOUR part does NOT create an automatic emergency on MY part.”
That’s all for now. Good luck with your recommendations!
College Admissions Advice Part II - Especially For University of California Applicants, But Also for Anyone Else – Second in a Series of Exercises for Developing Answers to College Application Questions.
The application deadline for University of California (UC) students is November 30. According to one of my SAT students, the deadline is November 30, but the conventional wisdom is the application server crashes rather frequently during the last couple of weeks before the deadline, so GET YOUR APPLICATION IN BY NOVEMBER 15. (You can get your SAT/ACT/other test scores to them after the application deadline –see http://admission.universityofcalifornia.edu/how-to-apply/after-you-apply/index.html - but you should check with the UC schools to which you apply, just to be sure).
You don’t believe me, you say? That’s fine – it’s wise for you to check for yourself as http://admission.universityofcalifornia.edu/how-to-apply .
But mostly, I’m going to focus on the personal statement for the University of California. Whether you’re applying to be a freshman [sic] / first-year student, or to transfer to, any UC school, you have to answer two essay prompts with a total of no more than 1,000 words. That’s not much, so you have to be fairly concise. You can find all the information I have referenced, or am about to reference, at http://admission.universityofcalifornia.edu/how-to-apply/personal-statement/ .
This year’s general prompt, which all first-year and transfer applicants have to respond, is:
Tell us about a personal quality, talent, accomplishment, contribution or experience that is important to you. What about this quality or accomplishment makes you proud and how does it relate to the person you are?
Now, this prompt is almost identical to the exercise I was going to write about before I knew it was one of the UC prompts (“What is the accomplishment of which you are most proud?”), so I can “kill two birds with one stone” here. This is a really generic, plain-vanilla, standard, cliché application question. As such, this prompt can be used for practically any college’s “persona statement,” especially where you’re no given a specific prompt to address.
However, a question’s being a cliché doesn’t make it unimportant. The reason this question is overused and a bit trite is that, like all clichés, it’s an easy way to express a simple truth. In this case, UC is asking you “Who Are You?,” to quote The Who…
The school wants to know who you are, mostly what you have done, what you think is important, what you plan to do, and what you are likely to do. If you’re most proud of a science award you won, you may be a good candidate for engineering school or the hard sciences. If you’re most proud of a short story you wrote, maybe you should major in English, journalism, or the like. If you’re most proud of your debate skills, then maybe you should look at philosophy, perhaps as a route to law school. It’s very good if you can link the achievement of which you are the most proud to your long-term goals, since a mismatch between your stated goals and stated “proudest accomplishment” means that perhaps you haven’t thought things through very clearly.
Failure to think your career and life goals through clearly is not necessarily fatal to a college application. Lots of people go to college – especially liberal arts colleges - without a clear idea of their career goals, but not great if you’re applying to say, engineering school or a six-year combined BS/MD program – they want you to KNOW you want to be an engineer or a doctor more than anything else and that your related achievements mean more to you than practically anything else. Regardless of the program to which you are applying, , if your career goals don’t match the accomplishments that make you proud, you probably should reconsider your career goals.
Additionally, a gross “mismatch” may also lead the reader to believe you are not merely confused or inexperienced, but LYING. As I’ve stated in previous blog entries, if you’re really interested in being a business person who makes tons of money, and don’t particularly care HOW you make it, don’t pretend you want to dedicate your life to aiding the poor and downtrodden as a missionary in the Third World. The application readers will “see through” that, and your dishonesty will hurt you.
So basically, you want to write something like “My winning the science fair with my experiment regarding rat genetics is my proudest achievement to date, since I plan to attend either biology graduate school or medical school to become a geneticist,” that links your achievement to your future goals. Incidentally, if you are a budding capitalist “wheeler dealer,” talk about your greatest money-making exercise – your job, your sponsoring a fund-raising event, your investments, etc., and state that you believe “a rising tide lifts all boats” – when someone like you succeeds, the people from whom you buy goods and services all succeed, since you pay them from your money you’ve made, etc. That make much more sense than professing sentiments you don’t have about the less fortunate, underprivileged, etc.
“Freshman [sic] Applicant Prompt:”
If your next year at college will be your first, to paraphrase one of my old Scoutmasters from the Boy Scouts, you need to answer the following prompt as well.
Describe the world you come from — for example, your family, community or school — and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations.
Again, as with most, if not all, application questions, what they’re really asking is “Who Are You?,” and perhaps “Why Should We Care?” This is another opportunity to shine. After you’ve (hopefully) just “wowed” them with your impressive achievements in response to the general prompt, you can let them know the “why” behind your achievements. What drove you to them? What in your background led you even to know you could achieve such things, and more importantly, what led you to try?
For example, your proudest achievement might be “I performed an experiment in multiple generations of rats studying the link between genetics and several different kinds of cancer; I won a Westinghouse Science Award for my work,” so your description of the world you came from might describe your mother’s tragic death from breast cancer when you were only 12.
Don’t worry; most people don’t have these achievements or stories when they apply, but do “apply” the same logic to your personal statement. People like stories that make sense to them. Admissions officials are people. The better you are at combining your background and achievements into a coherent narrative (i.e., a story that makes sense), the better your application will be received. No admissions officer wants to accept someone who’s either lying, behaves in crazy, unpredictable ways, or simply can’t tell the truth in a way that makes sense, to a selective university. The first unsuccessful applicant would be seen as having to simply “grow up” or “clean up his or her act;” the second as needing mental health counseling; and the third may be seen as needing some remedial English composition instruction at a community college.
If you came from an impoverished background, you want to write about how you “made it against the odds,” how you had to help take care of your younger brothers and sisters, work a part-time job, and study when you could, in order to get grades and test scores good enough to make it into UC (or whatever school you’ve chosen). People who’ve struggled against adverse conditions with limited resources, including very limited attention from teachers, parents, coaches, etc., often do very well at large state universities such as UC, since they’re accustomed to dealing with overwhelmed instructors, school officials who don’t know them and don’t care about them, and generally having to follow rules to the letter without expecting any special treatment (at least not any special GOOD treatment).
If you’re from a relatively “privileged” background (either middle class or wealthy), acknowledge that, but also note how you’ve used your greater opportunities to get ahead in the world – hopefully, you’ve done volunteer work; you’ve REALLY done a tremendous job with your academics; you’ve played sports; you’ve been active in many extracurricular activities; you’ve worked a paid job to cover the costs of incidentals, so you are aware of at least some issues facing the working poor; you’ve helped around your house, and so on. Remember, “nothing succeeds like success;” if you show that you’ve been able to capitalize on opportunities, making the most of what you have, you’re much more likely to be given the opportunity that admission to a UC school presents you.
Transfer applicant prompt
What is your intended major? Discuss how your interest in the subject developed and describe any experience you have had in the field — such as volunteer work, internships and employment, participation in student organizations and activities — and what you have gained from your involvement.
This is similar to the “freshman” first-year applicant questions, in which they want to know how your accomplishments link to your academic goals. Basically, if there’s an obvious disconnect between your actions and your goals, they’re not likely to let you into UC.
An additional problem you, if you’re a transfer student, face, is “Why the heck should we let you in HERE? You already applied to a college, got in, and now you want to leave and come here. So tell us why!” The trick here is being honest while putting things in the best light.
As I’ve stated above, it’s not unusual for a college first-year student to have no real idea about what she or he wants to do for a career. It’s actually quite common. The real question is “How will changing educational institutions help you achieve your goals, and will your achieving that goal help our institution achieve its goal (of producing as many successful graduates as possible, so we can get donations from them, use them in advertising campaigns, and so on)?”
You really need to show the application reader that your current school doesn’t have the resources you need to achieve your goal (there’s scientific equipment at the UC schools that your current small liberal arts college doesn’t have; the specific major you want isn’t offered there; a California location is best if you want to apply to law schools in California, or work in the entertainment industry, etc.). If simply changing majors at your current school would achieve the same result, UC (or any other school) would probably decide to encourage you to do that by denying your transfer application.
If the reason you’re transferring is because your transferring from a community college or lower-rated four-year college, then explain how and why you “started small” (for example, perhaps when you were in high school you had to take care of a sick relative, so your grades weren’t as good as they otherwise would have been, so you went to community college to get a good foundation before applying to UC). Show that you really excelled at that institution, but now you’ve outgrown it, and really need to move “up to the big leagues.”
You’re not likely to gain transfer admissions for personal reasons unless they’re really major. For example, “My boyfriend is going there next year!” probably wouldn’t help your application. However, “My fiancé is going there next year, we’re getting married before he starts, and we plan to live in L.A. after we graduate, so I need to be able to apply to companies in Southern California!” is much more likely to get you the transfer admission, assuming all other things are equal.
Use Common Sense
Make sure you have someone you trust and respect proofread your statement. You should probably go through multiple drafts, use lots of “I” statements, and the like (this is all listed on the personal statement page). Read it yourself a couple of times before you submit it. Make sure you’ve counted the words in it using your word processor’s “word count” feature, so you KNOW your statement (the answers to BOTH prompts) is under 1000 words.
That’s about all I have to say at this time – Good luck!
"A Day in the Life" - First in a Series of Exercises for Developing Answers to College Application Questions
Exercises for College Applications
This is the first in a series of blog posts I will make about preparing for college applications, including the essay questions. This may also help you with your SAT and ACT essays, scholarship applications, and even summer job, internship, and summer educational program applications. Without further ado, here’s the first exercise I’ve thought of.
“A Day in the Life:”
Jot down what you are doing at any point during a typical day – make notes on a notepad, or more likely, record text or voice memos on your cell phone. This will help when applications ask about your activities – not all extracurricular activities that will impress college admissions officials are organized by your school! They may not even be “official” work or volunteer work. Do you spend time taking care of your younger brother or sister? That’s “child care.” Helping friends with homework? That’s “tutoring.” It’s a good idea to give things the best name you can, with an explanation so you can’t be accused of being dishonest or misleading. What you DON’T want to do is try to trick admissions officials with cutesy descriptions as “landscape maintenance specialist” as your description of lawn mowing, or “Used ionic and non-ionic surfactants to remove lipids, proteins, polysaccharides, and other organic compounds from a porcelain substrate” for your dishwashing job.
Of course, “official” volunteer work at a hospital, church, retirement home is easier to verify and should be included, as should any extracurricular activity you do in or through your school. That’s why this exercise is about tracking what you do when adult supervisors (teachers, employers, etc.) are not present.
Recreational activities count! Going for a walk? A bike ride? Log it. Playing video games, a role-playing game, a board game, etc.? Those activities count as well. Pick-up or casual sports with friends? Count those, too! All of these things are activities in which college students participate, and are encouraged by the college. Seriously, “ultimate Frisbee” is a sport at many colleges (it’s harder than it sounds). Competitive colleges want people who “work hard and play hard.”
Most schools want to know you’re not someone who doesn’t do ANYTHING but study (called a “tool,” with all that connotes, where and when I went to college). I’ve read about colleges calling such applicants and students “gunners,” after Charles Whitman, the University of Texas (Austin) student who shot at other students with a hunting rifle from the bell tower on the campus in 1966. You DON’T want admissions officials to think you’re a “gunner;” they want their students to be “well-rounded” individuals.
Unfortunately, if you don’t list a number of extracurricular activities, the college you apply to will think that either (1) you’re a “tool” and/or a “gunner,” or (2) you fill in your hours with activities you don’t want to discuss with them. Even listing “watching movies on Netflix” and “playing video games” is better than listing nothing (hey, you can learn things about urban development by playing SimCity, and learn about history, current events, psychology, science, etc. by watching many movies). Otherwise admissions officials will assume you’re a future stress burnout case because all you do is study, or your ideas of fun mean you will appear before the discipline committee on a regular basis if they’re dumb enough to admit you. Don’t be that applicant.
Schools want students with outside interests for a good reason. You’ll be happier in life if schoolwork and your paid work aren’t the only things in your life, and you’re very likely to “burn out” if they are, even if you don’t climb up any towers with a rifle slung over your shoulder. To quote an often-used cliché, “No one ever died thinking they didn’t put in enough hours at the office.” The same applies to schoolwork. If you do some things “just for fun,” you’ll be happier and healthier. If you’re happier and healthier, you will be more likely to succeed in all ways, including financially, and you’ll be in a better position to donate to the college when you’re an alumnus or alumna.
So just make a little note, using paper, your cell phone or media player’s “notes” or “recorder” function, about what you do. Then you’ll have a record when you’re wracking your brains to list your activities on your college applications. Anything you’ve recorded is better than “Uh…I dunno, just hangin’ out with my friends, you know? Probably watching some TV or something.” Even posting to YouTube, online message boards, and other Internet activity as long as it’s something you’d be happy to show your teachers, your grandparents, and every college admissions officer and future employer you will ever have (the Net is forever; if you want to post weird or controversial things, use a fake name and don’t use your real picture or an email address/user name that’s YOUR NAME – see my previous posts)…
This skill will also help you in any job where your duties may vary and your work may not be immediately apparent or measurable. For example, if you’re working for a lawyer, you’ll help the lawyer by showing what you were doing, for what client, and how much time it took, so the lawyer can bill the client or even get it from the other side if he or she wins the case. If you’re unfortunate enough to work for an abusive or unethical employer, it’s good to keep records of when you worked and what you did for two reasons: (1) you have a ready answer for the inevitable complaint, usually yelled at you “WHAT DID YOU DO ALL DAY? DO YOU EVEN DO ANYTHING AT ALL WHEN I’M NOT HERE WATCHING YOU? WHY SHOULD I EVEN PAY YOU?” and so on; and (2) if you need to complain to the government for a labor code wage and hour violation, you have something to prove your claim (it’s best to provide copies to your employer as you go, so he/she can’t claim you just made them up after you were fired or quit). But I digress (and if you have a legal claim, please speak to an attorney or the labor standards agency in your jurisdiction; I am not licensed to practice law in any jurisdiction, yadda yadda disclaimer disclaimer… ;-) )
The sooner you start on this exercise, the better off you will be. You don’t want to be panicking over this at the end of December; especially when it’s easy to get this out of the way in a week or so by recording your activities. I hope this helps!
Author: John Linneball Who did you think? ;-)
I'm the proprietor and only tutor for this business; that's why I named it after me.