Thick Files in College Admissions

Ivy Coach is quoted extensively in Town & Country today in a piece on college letters of recommendation.

Are you considering asking your state senator, a close friend of your sister’s ex-husband’s aunt, to write a letter of recommendation on your daughter’s behalf? Are you considering asking a major donor to a university, a third cousin once removed on your mother’s side, to write a letter on your son’s behalf? If so, you might strongly wish to reconsider. After all, elite colleges don’t want to hear from powerful people for the sake of hearing from powerful people. If your daughter didn’t work directly with this state senator through an internship in politics, that recommendation will cause more harm than good. And that’s often the case with the letter from the major donor, too. How do you know what that person will really write in their letter? And even if they show you the letter, what if the donor has an understanding with the admissions office that if she writes, “This young man is a strong applicant,” it really means she doesn’t wish to use one of her slots on him? You just don’t know.

We said as much in a piece out today in Town & Country entitled “Will a Letter of Recommendation From a Famous Person Help You Get into a Top School?“. With respect to submitting additional letters of recommendation from well-known individuals, Norman Vanamee writes, “Today, according to Brian Taylor, a managing partner at the college admissions counseling service Ivy Coach, it can have a different effect. ‘At most highly selective schools, when you submit a letter of recommendation from a famous person—unless you worked for that famous person as, say, an intern—schools see it for what it is. They see that you’re trying to game the system and it makes you unlikeable,’ he said.

Yet it’s not like this is a new thing — submitting such letters have been a no no for many years. As Vanamee writes, “According to Taylor, admissions officers are on the lookout for signs of entitlement, though he thinks that their aversion to letters from famous people preceded Varsity Blues. ‘A big reason why some students don’t earn admission to highly selective schools is because they brag or they flaunt their wealth. They might even do it subtly: Maybe they write about travel in their essays. Maybe they submit a letter of recommendation from a very important person thinking that’s going to sway admissions officers, but it won’t.’ Taylor’s prescription to avoid the famous-person endorsement is echoed by other college prep services as well as admissions officers.”

And who should students secure letters of recommendation from? As Vanamee writes, “Most colleges specify what type and how many recommendations they want. Typically, says Taylor, it will be a couple of teachers and a high school counselor. If that’s the case, ‘students should ask in May of their junior year and they should approach teachers in core subjects—that’s English, history, math, science, or foreign language,’ he says. Taylor believes that good recommendations are even more important now that many schools no longer require SAT or ACT scores. To that end, ‘You also don’t want to just ask for letters of recommendation. You want to help your teachers write those letters by reminding them about significant moments you’ve had in their class. Remind them about a project you worked on or a comment you made that changed the course of a conversation—anything that hopefully shows your intellectual curiosity.’ Does that mean you should never include additional letters? Of course not, said Taylor. ‘But keep in mind that old expression used in admissions circles: ‘The thicker the application file, the thicker the student.”

Indeed. The thicker the file, the thicker the student. It’s an expression we’ve been echoing for a generation and a half.

 
 

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