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An Ideal Recommendation Letter for College Applications

An Ideal Recommendation Letter for College Applications

By James H. Choi
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To Sabio Students,

The word “ideal” is often associated with “impossible” or “too difficult to obtain” in our conversations. But I am happy to inform you that an ideal recommendation letter is possible to obtain. In fact, almost all students who got into top universities had one. But you must be warned a good recommendation is indeed impossible to obtain without having substance. And even if you have substance, the best letter is absolutely impossible to obtain overnight.

But if you follow my advice as soon as you enter high school, you will get that golden recommendation letter, presenting you in the best light. I will remind you once more, though: You must shine first in order to have someone shine a light on you.

What I am about to explain is not my idea. This is a summary of what I learned from a very prestigious college and university head admissions officer when he was giving a talk to a private meeting of America’s top math-teams coaches. His talk was on “How to write a recommendation letters that we notice.”

An ideal recommendation letter for college applications has the following characteristics.

1. The letter must be for that one college only.

In other words, the letter must be so specific to one college that it would be impossible to send the same one to any other college. The recommendation letter must recommend the student for that particular college for reasons specific to only that college. (This has to be based on the recommender’s deep knowledge of what the school wants.) Here is an example of a very specific recommendation: “This student is a great fit for your artificial organ oriented Bioengineering Program because she is interested in developing artificial skin.”

If the recommender has any long-term perspective on other students’ performance after entering that particular college, this perspective should be mentioned even if the comparison is not entirely positive for the recomendee. For example, here is a letter that shows a weakness of the student but spins the weakness into a positive trait: “This student is not as intuitively smart in physics as is John Doe who is a Junior in your college now. Believe me: I have taught both students, and I know their differences. But this student is more driven than John Doe. He will be at least as successful as John Doe, if not more, based on the fact he always performed well, due to his sheer drive and tenacity, which are not found to the same degree in other students I have taught.”

As you can see, this requires your recommender to have an intimate knowledge about the college you pick. But you should not rely on your recommender having existing knowledge. In fact, you should prepare a short explanation on why you are a great fit for that college. (Do not write “Why this college is great for me.” This doesn’t make the university want you. Explain instead why you are great for the college, i.e., why you will bring glory to the college.)

Of course, you must have a fact-based and convincing argument as to why the college should choose you. If you cannot find a reason to recommend yourself, you should not ask others to recommend you.
http://dl.dropbox.com/u/6378458/Column/Info/English/SpecialEvents.gif2. The letter must describe only you.

In other words, the recommendation letter should be so specifically tailored to you that it would be useless for anyone else. Talk is cheap, and adjectives are even cheaper. Any recommender can recklessly toss around sentences like “This student is a smart student and has a great sense of responsibility.” But such a statement will take on meaning only if it is followed by a specific example such as “When we had a flood, she made more sandbags than anyone other volunteer who showed up at school on that (ironically) sunny Saturday afternoon. (The rain had stopped the day before.) In fact, she went home that evening only once it became clear the water level was going down.”

Here’s one more example of a letter describing a student well: Instead of just saying, “This student showed great leadership in academic areas,” the letter should read, “He is the one student who brought the AMC test to our school when he was only a ninth grader. To do this, he went around speaking to every math teacher. Then he organized study groups to win peer support, too. This student just wouldn’t give up. We had to say yes then, and now we are glad we did. Today, the AMC test is an established annual academic event at our school thanks only to this student’s leadership.” Which student would you take? The one who “showed great leadership” or the one who established the AMC test at his high school when he was just a freshman? Most colleges would pick the latter.

Before your recommenders can cite these incidents and anecdotes — these great things that you do — you need to create them in the first place. That means you should be doing these great things now. There is no way around that.

3. The letter must be from someone with a trusted track record.

The best recommender not someone who writes for the best students, and he is not someone who writes for the worst students. That doesn’t matter. The best recommender is actually the one who has a track record for saying things how they really are: The best recommender is an accurate predictor of the recommendee’s performance in college.

College admissions offers keep a record of the recommenders’ track record. Those recommenders who over-praise all students will be ignored.

Avoid getting a recommenation letter from a teacher who sees equally great potential in all students. Chances are, this teacher wrote the same thing in every recommendation letter he or she has ever written, and the colleges know exactly what those “potentials” amount to by now. This is no indication of how you will perform, and it is not tailored to you.

Likewise, recommendation letters coming from countries or cultures that praise everyone highly will not have much credibility after a few “best student I have ever seen” turned out ordinary. Thus it is better to have the recommendation letters from the countries or cultures that talk straight, if you can get one. For example, if you are a Korean and studied as an exchange student for a year in the United States, get your letter from your exchange-studies teacher. Of course, this assumes you made the most of your exchange program by impressing your teacher positively during your stay. (This is not my idea, but a paraphrased quote of what I heard from the admissions officer.)

4. Get a letter from people in academics if you can.

Get a recommendation letter from the professor of the college you are applying to. Of course, an opportunity like this does not come naturally to high school students. You need to work on building this relationship for years to create an opportunity. But if you can get one, a recommendation letter from practicing academics, who really know you, worked with you (and can use full of anecdotes while writing a letter about you) and also know the college you are applying to, can be very powerful. A letter like this makes you stand much taller than other applicants, who will get recommendation letters only from their high school teachers and counselors.

Take my student student, BH, for example. She participated in MIT’s WTP program at the end of her Junior year in high school. While in the program, BH displayed an apparently natural aptitude in learning Matlab, and the supervising professor noticed. (The truth is, although BH never learned Matlab, she did know another, similar software called Mathematica.) This apparent aptitude for software, in addition to other impressive aspects of BH, impressed the supervising professor sufficiently to give BH a recommendation letter. Let me rephrase: BH got a recommendation letter from an MIT professor. Do you think she got in?

If you can’t tell yet, here’s another story about BH. She also worked as a research intern at Dr. Konopka’s clinic, and received a recommendation letter from him as well.

BH got accepted to — among other colleges — MIT. Only her college admissions officers know how big a role these letters played. But the fact that her peer, a high school math wizard who made it to prestigious USAMO, was rejected by MIT. The acceptance of BH, who never showed any promise in any math competitions, over this other student makes me suspect those recommendation letters played some role in this surprise outcome.


What to do?

To get ideal recommendation letters, you need to know the recommender well, and more importantly, the recommender has to know you well. If you are the type who sits in the last row of class every day, quietly minding your own business, or if you are the type who never visits any teacher’s office for questions, then you are working hard to make sure your teachers will have nothing to say about you in their recommendation letters.

Think of what type of recommendation letter you want to have. Then think about what type of life you have to live and what deeds you must do to get that letter. Then live out those deeds. Yes, it is you who is writing your recommendation letter — by living it. Your teachers are merely transcribing what you have done. They are authenticating your deeds in writing, on your behalf. All you have to do, and all you can do, is to make sure that everything noteworthy is transcribed accurately.

It is your life — not your teachers’ — on the line. You have to make it easier for the recommender. For example, you need to provide anecdotes and facts for your recommender to cite, refer to, and allude to in the recommendation letter. But in order to have these anecdotes, you need to spend time with the recommender. You need to put in the effort.

Even then, having anecdotes is not enough. Doing deeds is not necessarily going to get them remembered. You have to carry yourself in such a way that your recommender can remember the anecdotes easily. For example, if you were the last one making sandbags during the flood, go through the trouble of walking to the other end of the building to say goodbye to your teacher. Not only is saying goodbye the proper and polite thing to do anyway, it is also the only way to make sure your teacher knows how late you stayed.

And do not rely on other peoples’ memories, especially four-year-old memories. Provide a one page document of your activities (such as volunteering at the sandbag event), accomplishments (awards you won), and other notable deeds when you ask for the recommendation letter. With this document, the recommender can easily remember and cite facts accurately. In fact, don’t rely on your memory either. You should keep a binder of your activities so that you can remember them. Start one now if you haven’t.

By the way, there is no point in getting a recommendation letter from someone who doesn’t know you. For instance, your powerful parents might pull some strings to have a Nobel Prize winner write a recommendation letter for you. But this person, no matter how smart he or she is, won’t have any anecdotes to tell, nor any first-hand testimony of your strengths to match what the college you are applying to want. The vagueness of adjectives will sorely stand out among the genuine recommendation letters of other applicants.

Start doing something, and I wish you the results that match your deeds




Categories: College Applications
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