TUN sits down with Kristina Dooley, president of the Independent Educational Consultants Association and founder of Estrela Consulting, to discuss the impact of letters of recommendation on your college application.
TUN: Kristina, thanks so much for joining us.
DOOLEY: Thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here.
TUN: Starting with the big question, how important are recommendation letters in college admissions? Can they make or break candidates’ chances of being admitted to the schools of their dreams?
DOOLEY: That’s a really good question and one that we get a lot.
The best way to look at it is, it’s an opportunity for students to become multi-dimensional in the process. It’s not a numeric data point. So, it’s the one way that students can really have some of their personality traits come through, obviously through the words of a recommender.
In terms of if they can make or break an applicant, I think they can certainly break an applicant if the words are not positive.
I think students are sometimes surprised that when they ask somebody to write a letter of recommendation for them — and the students won’t see the recommendation letters because they’ll wave their rights to that — it is possible that a teacher who they feel like would write some really great things about them could have some reservations about their candidacy.
So, certainly, if there are some red flags raised in your letter of recommendation, it could break possibilities for admission.
There’s a space on there where the teacher can check a box that says, “I’d like a phone call from the admission officer.” Maybe they’re not comfortable putting a concern in writing, so students should be aware of that.
Can it make their application? It could certainly support the already great things in their application. It won’t be something that makes a candidate automatically admissible who, based on grades and other factors, is not admissible. But, it’s great supporting evidence for sure.
TUN: What is the purpose of looking at letters of recommendation in the college admissions process? What do admissions officers gain by reading them?
DOOLEY: When admission representatives or admission committees are looking at recommendations, what they’re really looking for is, how can they shape that student? How can they make that student be more than just numbers or just letter grades?
It is an opportunity to explain their character traits. A student also doesn’t necessarily have to be the top student in a class to get a really strong recommendation from a teacher. The teacher might actually be able to say, “You know, the student is incredibly prepared for class. They’re supportive of their peers. They’re motivated.”
It is an opportunity to explain some of the things that an admission committee may not otherwise know. (Admissions committees) may make their own assumptions without those things. If they see a B or a C in a class, a recommendation from the teacher who taught that class can put some context into what that student was like in the class. Again, maybe their performance isn’t indicated very well by just that letter grade.
TUN: Who should students reach out to to write their recommendation letters? Do you have any tips on how students can make that decision?
DOOLEY: I would say there are two different ways to think about this. One would be, if a student is looking at a very specific academic program, let’s say engineering, it would make a lot of sense for that student to look for recommendations from teachers who have taught them in something like math or science. The admission committee would want to make sure, “Okay, the student will be able to be successful in our program.” And that assurance could come from some recommendations from those specific kinds of teachers.
Otherwise, if a student’s looking at applying to a college and maybe just looking at a general liberal arts curriculum, (admissions committees) typically would like to see recommendations coming from teachers from different types of disciplines. Maybe include somebody from the sciences or math and, on the other side, somebody from the humanities — English, history or something like that.
I tell students to choose from those two spectrums if you can. Ask for one of each because, again, it gives a little bit more breadth to the descriptions of the student and what they can do.
But, again, if they’re looking at really something specific, especially math- or science-based, it is very important that they get a recommendation from a teacher in one of those, preferably higher-level, math or science classes.
The other set of recommendations that students can get, which colleges may or may not ask for, are optional letters from people who are not teachers. The college says, “You can have two or three optional letters of recommendation.”
If that student is very active, for example, in their church, maybe their youth group leader could write a character reference letter. Absolutely, take advantage of that. Maybe it’s a coach. Maybe it’s an academic advisor or a tutor. There are lots of people who can provide supplemental information who haven’t necessarily taught that student in a class.
TUN: How early should students be reaching out?
DOOLEY: That’s a really good question. I think there’s some confusion around that.
What I encourage our students to do is, in the spring of their junior year, before they leave for their summer break, I will tell the students that this is the time to ask.
This is the “promposal.” We’re not going yet, but let’s ask and get on their radar because there are always very popular teachers in high schools who get asked by many students to write letters of recommendation. It’s common for teachers to say, “I will write them for the first 10, 15 or 20 students that ask me, but, beyond that, I just don’t have the capacity.”
So, getting into their queues and getting on their radars, in terms of writing the recommendation, is important.
I have our students do the “ask” in the spring before they leave for the summer. Towards the end of the summer or beginning of the school year, the students should be reaching back out to the teacher as a reminder. They could start it with something like, “Thank you, again, for agreeing to write a letter of recommendation for me.”
A lot of teachers will try to get the recommendation letters written over the summer months or early in the fall semester. That’s because once students get into school, the teachers’ schedules will get very full.
So, that early “ask” in the spring of junior year is imperative because, if the teachers can get them written, that saves them some time in the fall.
The actual submission doesn’t happen till the fall of senior year. But, that doesn’t mean wait until that time to ask.
TUN: Once a student gets confirmation from someone who is willing to write a recommendation letter, what are the appropriate next steps? Should that student speak to the recommendation writer about what he or she should include in that letter? Are there any documents or information that students should provide?
DOOLEY: I think you’ll find that some teachers will ask for the student to provide them with a resume or a brag sheet of some sort. Some of them actually have a form that they have students complete. I know that a lot of counselors do that as well so that they can be sure to touch on the things that the student really feels are important for them to bring up in the recommendation.
All that being said, I do think there’s something to be said about a very genuine authentic letter of recommendation that doesn’t have talking points already provided.
I think it depends on the teacher. If they’re one of those teachers writing 15 or 20 recommendations, it could be very helpful to have some guidelines or some reference points so that those letters don’t become generic from one student to the other.
In fact, we do that with our students. Our students do an aptitude assessment that has a one-page sheet that has some terms to describe them. We have our students provide that to their teachers. They can use that sheet if they would like to, if they feel that it would be useful. Many of them do find that helpful.
But, to actually tell the teacher, “I want you to mention that I was the debate champion last year. I want you to mention that big game last fall when we won against X school.” I think that that makes students a little less authentic.
Resumes are helpful because they may not necessarily know what you’re doing outside of school. They may not know that you have a job or that you’ve participated in something like a youth group, an outside organization or sport. So resumes do give them some context in terms of what you’re doing outside of school.
But, (recommendation letter writers) should be writing based on their direct knowledge about who you are and their direct experiences with you, not repeating things that you’re going to be talking about in other parts of your application that really don’t have anything to do with that specific teacher’s experience with (you).
TUN: Thanks, again, for joining us today.
DOOLEY: You’re welcome. Thank you!
This interview has been edited for clarity. Watch the full video here.
News & Content Manager
Jackson Schroeder is a graduate of Ohio University with a B.A. in Journalism from the E.W. Scripps School. He is originally from Savannah, Georgia. Jackson has covered a wide range of topics, including sustainability, technology, sports, culture, travel, and music. He plays bass and guitar, and enjoys playing and listening to live music in his free time.