May 2011 Newsletter
In the college admissions process, there are some things in your control and a whole lot more that’s not, right? Wrong! This is a common misconception. The fact is that just about every aspect of the college admissions process is in your control. Are there exceptions? Yes. You can’t control if the admissions counselor perusing your application had a miserable date the night before evaluating your candidacy or if twenty kids from your high school all decided to apply to the college that you dream of attending. But for just about everything else, you are in control of the college admissions process. Whether or not you earn admission is by no means random. Rather, it’s based on what you do, how you perform, and how you portray yourself to those writing your recommendation letters as well as those evaluating your application for admission.
Let’s dissect one aspect of a college application – teacher letters of recommendation – to prove the point that you have a bigger say in what goes into your college application than you may think. You might think that what a teacher writes about you in his/her letter is what it is. There’s not much you can do about it but hope he/she writes a glowing letter filled with example after example of how you were one of the brightest, most intellectually curious students they encountered in their long careers in education. But don’t you think a number of students think a teacher will write that about them? The fact is that what you think a teacher will write about you isn’t necessarily what comes out on the page.
Many teachers write their letters of recommendation for their students over the summer months. It’s a burden that they don’t want to deal with during the course of the school year when they’re busy writing lesson plans and grading tests. Other teachers will cram in writing these letters in between grading papers. It should come as no surprise then that the letters of recommendation may not come out so well. Maybe they’re short or lacking in substance. Maybe even they’re…(dare we say it) generic.
In the years that we have been in practice here at Ivy Coach, we have seen them all. We have seen the letter of recommendation in which the teacher forgot to do a “Replace All” from a previous letter: “Scott is a very bright and eager student. When Sarah got a question wrong on an exam, she approached me to figure out how he could avoid that kind of mistake in the future.” We’ve seen the letter where the teacher admits that she doesn’t know the student very well: “Tom seems like a nice young man. I was surprised that he asked me to write a letter of recommendation for him as he didn’t speak up very often in class and, although he got an A, I don’t know much about him.” As a side note, don’t ask a teacher to write you a letter just because you got an “A” in his class. It’s better to get a recommendation letter from a teacher in whose class you earned a “B+” if that teacher knows you really well and views you as an extraordinary student.
So how do you avoid these kinds of generic (or worse…mediocre) letters of recommendation? You write the letter yourself! No one knows you (or your son/daughter) as well as you do. A teacher is not going to be able to write what a wonderful, intellectually curious student you are and fill the page with insightful observations as well as you can. At Ivy Coach, we work with our students to help them craft effective teacher letters of recommendation. We will help your story come to the surface so that you stand out from the pack of applicants. We’ll make sure there are no lines in these letters that can be interpreted in so many ways, such as: “Marissa has a lot of promise as a student.” Does that mean she can do a whole lot better than she does? Does it mean she’s not trying hard enough or that she doesn’t care?
If you’re concerned that your teacher won’t be interested in you writing your own letter, you’d likely be wrong. In our experience, teachers love any help they can get. They don’t want to write these letters any more than you want to have to ask them to write them. If you email your teachers a letter that you write, even if they don’t respond or – worse – say it doesn’t make sense for you to write your own recommendation letter, there’s still a very good chance that they’ll use parts of the letter if not all of it verbatim.
In addition to writing the letter yourself, it’s still extremely important that you develop a meaningful relationship with the teacher who is writing your letter. Volunteer in the class. Speak up in class discussions. Show your love of learning. Do extra reading. When you ask your teacher to write a letter of recommendation for you, if you sense any sign that he/she is even slightly hesitant, consider why and then ask another teacher instead. You’ll never know if your teacher ended up using the letter that you wrote because you must waive your right on your application to ever see the letter. But have a little faith that he/she used parts or all of it. We’ve seen it happen time and again.
How To Get Great Letters Of Recommendation
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