Most colleges require students to submit letters of recommendation from teachers or professors to demonstrate academic potential outside of reported grades. On this recommendation, the teacher has the opportunity to write a letter for the student and submit a few boxes with relative aptitude of the student. In this analysis, we will look at the teacher recommendation, strategies to asking for two or more letters, and shaping letters of recommendation.
The Teacher Recommendation
The teacher recommendation is one of several types of recommendations. The best type of teacher recommendation gives the reader a sense of the personality of the student. Each recommendation is two parts: ratings and evaluation. Ratings is a mandatory part of the recommendation, and evaluation has just recently become mandatory. Both sections are equally important and play into each other.
The student is no longer a series of grades on a transcript, but someone that actually loves the subject he/she is studying and wants to be in the classroom. This way admissions can see you as a person and not a statistic: this will play favorably in segments 2 and 3 discussed below. We can take a look at the requirements from the Common Application for the teacher to get an idea of what this passion can entail. Every teacher is required to rate students based on a number of categories, but we can think about these categories in broad segments:
1. Academic Ability: Academic achievement, intellectual promise, quality of writing, productive class discussion.
2. Personal Qualities: Respect to faculty, disciplined work habits, maturity, integrity, concern for others
3. Drive: Motivation, leadership, reaction to setback, self-confidence, initiative
In each of these segments, rate students from the top 1 percent, top 5 percent, top 10 percent, well above average, above average, average, and below average. The best recommendations are in the top 1 percent or top 5 percent, but do not stress if the teacher does not mark top 1 percent. In my experiences and in those of my students, these are checkpoints to help admissions think about you and put you in perspective. A personal and extraordinary letter with top 5 percent on these categories is better than marking top 1 percent and sending in an average letter. In the latter case, admissions will wonder why there is a discrepancy between the ratings and the evaluation.
To show academic ability, focus on performing well in your classes. Study hard, and then review your material again. Getting good grades will make you competitive and will help you get better letters of recommendation. Segments 2 and 3 are tied together -- try to search for teachers that know you personally or have seen you outside of test-taking mode. The best letters come from teachers who know you personally. For me, my 10th grade Advanced Placement Biology teacher Ms. Litten knew me because I took initiative in class every day and took the United States Biology Olympiad for the first time at my high school because I wanted to. In similar ways, try to connect with teachers and remember those times of stress, achievement, and emotion. Continuing with that example from Biology class, signing up for that test demonstrated drive and academic ability: I wanted to see how I would fare. Segment 2 takes more time to develop, and being aware of your interactions in class is the best way to improve or polish how you come off as a person.
The second part of the teacher recommendation is the written evaluation of the student, which includes a "description of academic and personal characteristics". The written teacher recommendation is critical: most Stanford students had two or three extremely strong connections with teachers that wrote letters for them. In the analysis for my book, I found this trend true across schools. The goal of this letter is to "differentiate this student from others" as the instructions say. Having a concise but impactful letter is important, and we will discuss how to shape the letter in the third part of this analysis.
Strategies for multiple letters
Now that we know the two parts of the recommendation and its purpose, we must develop strategies for multiple recommendations. Many schools ask for two or three recommendations from teachers. The most important aspect to multiple recommendations is developing meaningful relationships with as many teachers as you can throughout the school. Teachers and counselors often discuss you between each other, and having a good impression on all of them is important. This is the step where many students think they can play the system and fail: you have to be genuine and be your best throughout high school if possible. If not, change quickly--reputation comes in here.
A. Diversified Approach
One of the successful approaches students use is to request letters from teachers across subjects. If you are a strong student but do not have a specific academic focus by senior year, this is probably the best approach. General advice is to request letters from 11th and 12th grade teachers because they can give a recent snapshot of your personality. A 10th grade teacher recommendation is also acceptable if your relationship with that teacher is exceptional or if it shows aspects of your academic ability that resonate today. Across these grades, request diverse recommendations shows admissions that you are capable in many settings and with different teachers. But the common pitfall is to shape the rest of the application around a general strength. In the extracurricular theme, students need to develop a point of strength to compliment all-around academic ability. Many students do not realize this necessity and often their applications suffer.
B. Pointed Approach
If you are strong in a particular academic subject or set of subjects (i.e. math and physics) and have shown demonstrated ability outside of the classroom in Olympiads, competitions, or research, I would recommend the pointed approach. Ask for recommendations from teachers in the same discipline or in related disciplines to show an extraordinary ability in some field. This case happens to be rarer than the diversified approach in my experiences, but can be extremely powerful. The only pitfall is knowing the relative strength of your accomplishments in a field. If you are unsure if you should take this route, I would advise you to talk to students in university about research in your field or compare what similar students did in high school. As a general rule of thumb, students applying to Ivy League schools or equivalent should have participated in at least state-level competitions in their field if they are going to take this approach.
Whatever approach you use, the most important consideration should be the quality of your letters. That quality stems directly from your relationship with that teacher and often is correlated with how well you did in that class. If you are a freshman, sophomore, or junior, take note! Make those relationships early and maintain them. Not only will they be valuable for learning material, they will make extraordinary recommendations and life-long mentors. To this day, I think my acceptance to Stanford was largely dependent on my teachers and counselor.
Many teachers will ask for information about you before writing your letter, regardless of how well you know them. Teachers either have a very structured approach to gaining information about you or a very unstructured approach. In my experience, most teachers have an unstructured approach which allows you creativity in the way you shape their perspective of you. In fact, this trend is true across most letters of recommendation, whether it is for a job, a school, or something else.
A. Structured Prompts
Often teachers who write many recommendations will have a series of questions or materials that you will prepare and deliver before they write the letter for you. This method is easier for you because you can keep a pulse on the types of attributes that this teacher is searching for. On the other hand, you need to make sure to include the most important parts of your experience in that class and in your relevant extracurricular activities--this must be tailored to each teacher and requires time and effort. In addition, you need to stand out from your peers. Make the effort to meet with this teacher often during the writing process and before the process even begins. Cultivating this relationship is important so that you do not get a bland letter from an extraordinary teacher that is overwhelmed with writing letters for students.
Most teachers will ask you to give them some information about yourself to help them through the writing process. It is indeed that vague. I recommend creating a separate Word document that outlines some of your key strengths and activities or awards that showcase those strengths. Then I would include important phrases or key ideas that cannot be conveyed by your activities below that. The important aspect here is to be concise but paint a vivid picture of yourself. Developing that relationship beforehand comes second to none here as well.
We will go into more depth about tailoring the recommendation for each type of teacher in a future article, but this should suffice for a general understanding of the process.
The recommendation from your teacher is important because it gives legitimacy to your academic ability outside of grades and to your personality outside of your own essays. Developing key relationships with teachers across grades, and especially in 11th and 12th grade, is the best way to both score well in classes and have quality recommendations. The next step is to think about your recommendations as a portfolio--how do they tie together and work with your essays? How do they work with your extracurricular activities? Of course, entire articles can be written on these subjects, and they will be eventually. The final step is to think about how to tailor each letter in a way that demonstrates different personality facets. In the end, the most important takeaway is to consciously develop relationships with teachers early!