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!
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.