Episode 116: Getting a Remarkable College Recommendation Letter

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For those of you still debating which college your teenager should attend next fall, let us remind you, one more time, to take a look at Episodes 69, 70, 71, and 114–all of which aim to help you sort through some of the issues you might be facing in choosing the best college for your teenager. We wish you the best during this often stressful time–and, if you need an outside perspective, don’t hesitate to give us a call. Seriously.

Well, we thought about taking this week off to enjoy everyone else’s spring break. But last week, I read a great opinion piece in The New York Times entitled “Check This Box If You’re a Good Person,” and I thought we should share it with you in case you missed it. The author is Rebecca Sabky, who works in admissions at Dartmouth College. Located in Hanover, New Hampshire, Dartmouth is the smallest of the Ivy League institutions. I think that “Check This Box If You’re a Good Person” can fairly be called “a feel-good piece,” and I believe that we could all use that right now.

For those of you with freshmen, sophomores, or juniors at home, this piece will definitely give you an idea you never had before–and that’s saying something when it comes to the subject of college recommendations. So, sit back and think outside the box with us.

1. Ms. Sabky’s Piece

Because Ms. Sabky did such a good job of writing her short personal piece, I am simply going to read it to you. I don’t want to mess it up, and it doesn’t need any further explanation from us. By the way, this piece is part of the On Campus series in the Times?”dispatches from college students, professors and administrators on higher education and university life” (quoted from the website). So, listen to the podcast or follow this link to read the article.

As a parent, I feel exactly the way Ms. Sabky does. Raising a kind and generous child is every bit as important as raising a super-smart one. In the case of this Dartmouth applicant, his parents clearly got both!

2. Think Outside the Box!

So, think outside the box when it comes to your teenager’s college recommendations. We are not saying that an unusual off-the-beaten-track recommendation takes the place of recommendations from teachers, who can judge your teenager’s academic abilities–probably especially when applying to highly selective colleges. But an additional recommendation–when one is allowed by the college–that can shed light on your teenager’s personal traits and values could, evidently, end up being priceless.

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Episode 21: The Art of Getting Recommendations

In this episode, we continue our series on getting ready to apply to college by talking about the art of getting recommendations. Show notes for this episode are available at http://usacollegechat.org/21

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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In this episode, we continue our series on getting ready to apply to college by talking about the art of getting recommendations.

The Art of Getting Recommendations on NYCollegeChat, a weekly podcast for parents of high school students, brought to you by Policy Studies in Education

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

Connect with us through…

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Episode 13: Focus on Students with Academic Issues

This week, we’re continuing our series on choosing where your child should apply to college by talking about student with academic challenges.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…
Using letters of recommendation to good advantage
Using the last essay option on the Common Application to good advantage
Talking to current seniors who learned the hard way

Episode show notes are available at http://usacollegechat.org/13

Connect with us through…
Subscribing to NYCollegeChat on iTunes, Spreaker, Stitcher, or TuneIn!
Following us on Twitter @NYCollegeChat
Reviewing parent materials we have available at Policy Studies in Education http://policystudies.org/parents
Inquiring about our consulting services if you need individualized help
Following us on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/nycollegechat

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…
Calling our hotline at 516-900-NYCC
Emailing us at paul@policystudies.org to ask a question if you want us to answer it privately

This week, we’re continuing our series on choosing where your child should apply to college by talking about how options for students with academic issues.

NYCollegeChat is now available on iTunes, Spreaker, Stitcher, and TuneIn!

Focus on Students with Academic Issues on  NYCollegeChat podcast

Every student’s high school record is not as perfect as his or her parents might wish. The two most common problems are that the GPA (that is, the grade point average of high school courses) is not as high as it could be or should be or that the SAT or ACT scores (that is, the scores on the standardized college entrance examinations) are not as high as they could be or should be. Either of these problems makes choosing colleges to apply to a tense discussion.

Who is in the more difficult situation? Is it a student whose high school GPA is lower than ideal for whatever reason—sports teams, time-consuming hobbies or other outside activities, interest in the opposite sex, laziness, mediocre teachers, or family issues? Or is it a student whose SAT or ACT scores are lower than ideal for whatever reason—unfamiliarity with the test, refusal to study for the test or take practice tests, unavailability or unaffordability of a prep course to get ready for the test, test anxiety, or just a lackadaisical attitude toward standardized tests or college preparation generally? Let’s look at these two scenarios.

1. Students with Mediocre Or Low SAT/ACT Scores

What do we mean by mediocre or low scores? Let’s take the SATs as the example. If a student scores below 600 on any of the SAT subtests (reading, writing, and mathematics), that is a mediocre or low score. Scores in the low 600s are going to be problematic for most selective colleges, too.

Having mediocre or low test scores is likely an easier problem to solve than having mediocre or low high school grades. While students’ SAT or ACT scores are important to most top-ranked colleges, there are some colleges—including some really good colleges—that do not put so high a priority, or indeed any priority, on these test scores.

If you read the admissions blurbs on college websites, you will quickly see quite a few colleges that declare that SAT or ACT scores are not as important as high school grades and that the real picture of a student comes from the long and hard work the student has—or has not—done in classes over the course of the high school years. Those colleges will state that high school grades will tell them more about a student—about the student’s determination and perseverance and motivation, for example—than his or her performance on one test given on one Saturday morning. Indeed, they will cite research that says that high school grades are a better predictor of college success than standardized test scores—for all of the reasons that common sense would tell you.

For years, a relatively small number of colleges had said that SAT and/or ACT scores were not required in their admissions process. More recently, more colleges have been added to this list—so many, in fact, that this group of colleges now has a name: “test-optional” colleges. One very recent addition to that list is Bryn Mawr College. Professor Marc Schulz, a member of the Bryn Mawr admissions committee was quoted on the Bryn Mawr College website in July, 2014, as saying this: “We looked not just at the national data, but also took a very hard look at our own data over the last several years. It was clear that the standardized tests added very little predictive information after accounting for the strength of applicants’ academic work in high school and the admissions staff’s review of the whole application.”

Here are a few more of the “good” colleges that do not require SAT or ACT scores for admissions (although a student may usually submit the scores if he or she feels they will help the application and “accurately reflect his or her academic ability and potential”): American University, Bard College, Bates College, Bennington College, Bowdoin College, Brandeis University, Hampshire College, Mount Holyoke College, Sarah Lawrence College, Smith College, Wake Forest University, and Wesleyan University.

Now, there is also something called “test-flexible” colleges. These are colleges that give students a choice of which standardized test scores to submit during the application process. Some of these policies are more “flexible” than others. Here are a few of the “good” colleges that have some flexibility in choosing test scores to submit: Colby College, Colorado College, Hamilton College, Middlebury College, and New York University.

By the way, you can search for and find all kinds of lists of “test-optional” and “test-flexible” colleges online. But, because admissions policies change from time to time, you really need to check on a college’s website to tell just exactly how the college does or does not require or use SAT or ACT scores. For example, some colleges require standardized test scores for some applicants, like home-schooled students and international students, and not for others, like students who are U.S. citizens and went to high school in the U.S.

We will talk more about SATs and ACTs in an upcoming episode in a future series—how to prep for them, when to take them, how many times to take them, what the SAT IIs are, and more.

2. Students with Mediocre Or Low High School Grades

What do we mean by mediocre or low high school grades? If a student has a GPA below 3.0, that is a mediocre or low GPA. GPAs of 3.0 to 3.3 are going to be problematic for most selective colleges, too. If the high school GPA is on a 100-point scale, a GPA in the low 80s or lower is a mediocre or low GPA.

Unfortunately, there are no “high school grades optional” colleges that we know about. Certainly, most colleges will claim to look at the whole picture—a complete profile—of a student during the admissions process; but, that whole picture always includes high school grades. While there can be reasons that high school grades are lower than the student is capable of earning—such as difficult family situations or personal problems or trauma—those reasons would have to be explained compellingly in an essay or an additional letter of some sort to the college. In short, it is very difficult to explain away mediocre or low high school grades.

When a student has mediocre or low high school grades, it is ideal if that student happens to have high SAT or ACT scores. Then, the college can imagine that the student is bright, but perhaps had some reason for not performing as expected in high school classes. None of those reasons would be a great excuse, but some colleges will make an exception for such a student.

However, most students who have mediocre or low high school grades do not have high SAT or ACT scores. For those students, the choice with the highest cost-benefit ratio is probably a public two-year—or maybe public four-year—college. By the way, great public four-year colleges can be just as difficult to get into as private four-year colleges, so many of them are probably out of the running, too.

Instead, look at two-year community college, which gives a student a chance to erase a poor high school record with a better community college record. As we said in our first series, Understanding the World of College, a student who completes an associate’s degree at a two-year college can transfer that entire degree—that is, all the credits that were earned in completing that degree—to a four-year college and be well on the way to earning a four-year bachelor’s degree. When a student has earned that two-year associate’s degree, the spotty high school record is really a thing of the past for most, if not all, four-year colleges.

To be sure, there are four-year public and private colleges that take students with mediocre or low high school grades. The question for parents is whether those colleges have as good a reputation as the kind of four-year public or private college a student might be admitted to after a successful experience at a two-year community college. It might also be a matter of money. Doing the two years at a community college could save money that could then be put into a better four-year college for the final two years.

Of course, for parents of younger students, remind them that there is no easy route to a good college if high school grades are poor.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • Using letters of recommendation to good advantage
  • Using the last essay option on the Common Application to good advantage
  • Talking to current seniors who learned the hard way

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