In this episode, we continue our series on getting ready to apply to college by talking about the art of getting recommendations.
I have spent a lot of time in my life writing recommendations for students and colleagues pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees. In the interest of full disclosure, I have no idea, really, how seriously colleges take recommendations because I have never been on the reviewing side. But, as long as colleges ask for them—and some do not, especially large state public institutions, which receive thousands of applications and have generous acceptance policies for students in their own states—we should make every effort to get the best possible recommendations for your child.
Some colleges will be quite specific about the recommendations they want to see. For example, they will ask for recommendations from teachers who taught your child for a full year, preferably the junior year of high school. Or they will ask for recommendations from teachers in core academic subjects. But, absent any specific requirements, you should have some good candidates of your own for recommendation providers.
In some high schools, by the way, the college counselor or guidance counselor writes a recommendation for each student, often based on the comments of teachers in the building. If that is the case, that is one of the recommendations that your child will need. But he or she still might need one or two more.
1. Teachers in Core Academic Subjects
Core academic subjects include English, mathematics, science, social studies, foreign languages, and sometimes technical subjects, like engineering. Your child should have a recommendation from a teacher of one of these subjects—and preferably from teachers of two of these subjects, especially for selective colleges that want two academic recommendations.
Ideally, your child would be able to get a recommendation from a teacher in the subject he or she hopes to major in at college. Don’t forget that your child most likely had to declare a prospective major in the application, so the college knows what your child is interested in studying. For example, if your child wants to be a doctor and has proposed a biology major, with a pre-med professional interest, then one teacher recommendation should be from an upper-level science teacher—AP or honors or other advanced biology, in the best case, but chemistry or physics would be fine as well.
However, you also have to think about what kind of recommendation a teacher in that proposed major field is going to write. It’s a balancing act. For example, if your child wants to major in a natural science, but does not have great grades in science classes, then don’t ask a science teacher for a recommendation. It is surprising to me how naïve students can be about this. You need to impress upon your child that he or she needs to ask a teacher who has given your child good grades in the high school courses the teacher taught. Obviously, the recommendation needs to say that your child is a good and serious student; if your child got a B– or an 82 in a teacher’s class, the recommendation is probably not going to say that your child is a good and serious student.
My advice is to go with a teacher who has given your child good grades, even if that teacher is in a subject your child does not intend to pursue in college. But apart from the good grades, your child would ideally have some sort of relationship with the teacher. That could be from an after-school club the teacher sponsored or from helping the teacher clean up the classroom after projects or from being useful as a peer tutor for kids in the class that were having trouble or something else. In some way, your child needs to distinguish himself or herself from all of the other seniors that teacher might be writing recommendations for. You would be surprised how many students will say to me, “Yes, I think that teacher will remember me from class last year.” That is not likely to be a strong enough relationship to produce a great recommendation.
Knowing this ahead of time—we are talking to you, parents of sophomores and juniors—should help younger students seek out and develop relationships with teachers who can become good references for them in the future. Asking such a teacher to write a college recommendation at that time—say, at the end of the sophomore year or certainly at the end of the junior year—when your child is still well known to the teacher is a great way to get a solid recommendation on file in the college counselor’s or guidance counselor’s office—so it is there when you need it later. It avoids the last-minute rush when every senior is asking teachers for recommendations and when they are then, understandably, done in a more hurried, less personal way.
2. Teachers in Other Subjects
By “other subjects,” we mean art, music, theater, health, physical education, and sometimes technical subjects, like computer technology. Teachers in these subjects can also write strong recommendations, especially if your child is interested in majoring in one of these subjects. So, for example, if your child is applying to fine arts programs at a university or to art or music schools, then a recommendation from a teacher in that field is important. If your child is applying to art school, then there is a good chance that one of the art teachers helped your child prepare a portfolio that will be judged by the college admissions committee. That teacher undoubtedly knows your child and his or her work quite well and would make a good reference.
Even if your child is not interested in majoring in one of these fields, your child might have a good relationship with one of the teachers as a result of in-school or after-school activities. For example, if your child takes instrumental music classes or music theory classes and has played in the band throughout high school, then the music teacher can speak about your child from more than one perspective and should be able to write a strong recommendation. Or, if your child loves science, but took an acting class and did well in it and was in a school play, then the theater teacher is well-positioned to write a multifaceted recommendation for your child.
The bottom line, again, is this: Impress upon your child the importance of building a relationship with a couple of teachers so that those teachers are able to write more personal recommendations for your child. That will mean that your child needs to go the extra mile first—for example, by helping out in class, volunteering for extra projects outside of class, joining clubs, working with younger students, or something else.
3. The School Principal
If your child knows the high school principal well, the principal is a great choice as a recommendation writer. Perhaps your child has been a student government officer or a star athlete or top student or a dedicated volunteer at the school. When we opened our small Early College high school in Brooklyn, we had an incoming first class of about 120 students. The principal knew every one of them—well.
A sincere recommendation from a principal could mean a lot to a college because it means that a student has somehow sufficiently distinguished himself or herself from the crowd so that the principal took notice—in a good way, of course.
4. College Professors
If your child has been fortunate enough to take a college class while in high school—either during the school year through dual enrollment or during the summer—that professor could make a good choice as a recommendation writer. This would be true only if the college class were small enough that the professor knew your child, of course. And again, ideally, only if your child did well in the course. Clearly, having a recommendation from a college professor saying that your child has already succeeded in college-level work would be reassuring to a college. Just make sure that your child requests the recommendation as soon as the college course is over; otherwise, it will likely be difficult to get in touch with the professor, and the professor will likely have difficulty remembering your child.
5. Internship Mentors
If your child has been fortunate enough to have an internship in the workplace before the second semester of the senior year of high school—whether it was paid or unpaid—your child’s mentor would be an excellent choice for a recommendation from outside the academic world. Some colleges accept one or even two such recommendations—not to take the place of academic recommendations, but to supplement them.
We have already said in previous episodes that internships are one of the best ways for a high school student to spend time and that they are priceless learning experiences. Being able to use the internship mentor as a reference is just one more plus to the internship experience. Mentors will be able to write about your child’s initiative, dependability, seriousness, determination, creativity, and/or intelligence—all of which a college would be happy to get in an incoming freshman.
As is the case with all of these recommenders, make sure your child asks for the recommendation at the end of the internship, not months later when a recommendation is due. If your child has spent any time with his or her mentor talking about future college plans, that’s all the better.
6. Workplace Supervisors
If your child has worked in part-time jobs or done substantial volunteer work during high school—either during the school year or during the summer—then your child’s supervisor might make a good reference. Just as with internship mentors, these real-world adults can speak about the qualities in your child that make him or her a good employee or good volunteer—all of which are likely to make your child a responsible college student as well. If your child works or volunteers each summer, then start collecting those recommendations after the freshman year—because those early jobs or supervisors might turn out to be the best.
By the way, sometimes these adults in the real world ask the student to draft the recommendation for them. That makes it easier for the supervisor, of course, and the supervisor probably wants to deliver a recommendation that the student can use. If that happens, make sure that your child is positive and complimentary in the recommendation, but does not go overboard. It should sound as though the supervisor actually wrote it!
Listen to the podcast to find out about…
- Why recommendations are important even if they aren’t needed for college applications
- What to do when someone doesn’t seem excited about writing a recommendation for your child
- Whether your child should waive his or her right to see recommendations before they are sent to colleges
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