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Getting Great College Recommendations

By Austin Webb
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #74, 2007.

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Austin Webb


Most colleges won't just take a mother's word that her children are wonderful. Even more than other students, homeschoolers need an objective, third-party appraisal of their academic and personal abilities. Fortunately, the letters of recommendation that most top colleges require allow for just that.

A Special Role

Letters of recommendation serve as a special "window" into the applicant for the admissions committee. They are more objective than essays but more personal than grades and test scores. A good recommendation helps to show who the applicant really is. A good recommendation will share specific anecdotes about you and specific observations about you that support your overall college marketing strategy.

Recommendations are critically important and can destroy a candidacy if they are not written carefully (even if positive in tone).

The Big Picture

Your recommendation letters need to fit your overall marketing plan and work together, each addressing a different aspect of your candidacy.

For each college, I generally submitted three letters of recommendation: one from my mom (the counselor letter), one from my science mentor, and one from my speech teacher.

My mom's letter discussed the challenges I had overcome, my leadership skills, and my growth as an individual over a lifetime. I asked my science mentor to detail my strengths: scientific and intellectual ability. My speech coach addressed my interpersonal skills and public speaking ability. Basically, she showed that perceived weakness in interpersonal skills did not apply in my case. She was able to demonstrate that I cared about other people, worked well in a group, and had a sense of humor.

Picking a Recommender

There are many factors to consider when picking a recommender and it must be done carefully. Start thinking early because you need to request recommendations at least two months before the letter is due in order to give recommenders plenty of time.

Colleges usually have specific requirements, like one recommendation from a science teacher and one from a humanities or social sciences teacher. The recommender needs to be an adult who has taught or mentored you, who genuinely likes you, who wants to see you succeed, and who has the time and skill to write a good letter.

Ideally, the person should have had many points of contact with you (some in the 11th or 12th grade) and a vested interest in your success. Just because you were a student in a teacher's class does not mean they care about you or know you well enough to write a great letter.

Any time you ask someone to be a recommender, be sure to give them the option of saying no. This is polite and wise on your part since you don't want a letter from someone who doesn't want to write it.

Preparation

Once the person agrees to be a recommender, you need to prepare some documents to make their job as easy as possible.

First, determine what you need from the recommender. To do this, you must understand your marketing plan for that particular school, including what you will be able to address where in your application. Lists of your accomplishments and evidence of being a "good student" will appear in the written application, so a recommendation that doesn't say much other than that you are a good student doesn't accomplish much.

In light of what has not been covered in the application, or what needs to be elaborated on by a third party, compile a very specific list of areas (like academic ability, personal traits, background elements, etc.) that need to be addressed and include that list in a letter to the recommender. Ask them to address these areas if they feel comfortable doing so. Also give them a copy of the college's recommendation form (usually a part of the application) as well as specific things that particular college wants. You can also give them examples of a good and bad recommendation letter, your transcript, and resume.

Ideally, all the recommendations shouldn't sound alike and shouldn't completely overlap. It would be more natural for a science teacher to talk about your science ability and research interests, while a humanities teacher can discuss your reading level and insight into the written word, for example.

You can "nudge" each recommender towards the desired comments by reminding them, in your letter asking for the recommendation, about the specific stories, events, or traits you'd like to have mentioned. If it's someone you know very well, you can even write a sample recommendation and suggest they use it as a starting point if they agree with it. Some busy people may copy your recommendation word for word, so don't be overly modest!

I used the same recommenders for all the colleges I applied to. This could have meant a great deal of work for them, but because I did the research for them and detailed what each specific college was looking for, they were able to address all the colleges' concerns with one carefully written letter.

The Counselor Letter

Most colleges also ask for a letter from the student's high school counselor. This is a good deal for homeschoolers, since one of the parents will write it. This counselor letter can fill in details about the student that might not fit into other parts of the application.

I can't stress enough that the letter, like every other aspect of the application, must be truthful. It is a moral imperative to be honest, even if it weren't for the fact that admissions officers usually see through smoke screens. Don't be afraid to deal with weaknesses and failures, as long as you can demonstrate that you have risen above them. In fact, my mom was brutally honest about my early shortcomings (which fit in the typical stereotype an admissions officer would have had of me). However, I feel her well-written letter gave me an edge on the competition because she lay to rest any fears they would have had about my ability to fit into a highly structured, fast-paced environment and to interact well with other students.

It is also important to express appreciation. Thank-you notes to the recommender are a must and serve a practical purpose. Mail them shortly before the due date as a subtle reminder.

Because I asked so much of my recommenders, I also gave them a small gift when the process was finished.

Keeping Track of Details

Application details can become overwhelming, but there are ways to manage them. It is very helpful to create grids to keep track of the details. For example, we made a chart with the colleges I applied to down the left side of the page. Across the top, we made columns where we listed each piece of information that had to be sent to the college:

  • Part I of the application
  • Part II of the Application
  • Course Descriptions and Resumes (for colleges that asked if I applied without a state certified diploma)
  • School Report/Counselor Letter
  • Humanities Recommendation
  • Science/Math Recommendation
  • Midyear Report
  • Financial Aid Information
  • AP exam results
  • College Board test results

As each piece of the application was mailed (or electronically submitted), I wrote the date in the box (i.e. MIT, Part I, 9-27-04). When the college received the information, I used a yellow highlighter pen to signify that it had arrived. A quick glance at the chart let us know what steps were finished and what was left to do.

I also learned that the postal service loses things. Do not mail important documents. I recommend setting up a FedEx account online so you can easily print shipping labels and track your documents to ensure that they get to the college. Use FedEx for all important documents. In fact, you might just as well go ahead and purchase a large box of 9 x 12 envelopes.

To make it easy for your recommenders, print shipping labels with the recommender's return address and give the labeled envelope to the recommender to ship the letter. This minimizes inconvenience and cost for the recommender. It also allows you to check when the letter is mailed and received.

Conclusion

Since homeschoolers have great ability to cultivate long-term relationships with mentors, we have the potential to do very well in terms of letters of recommendation. This is an area where solid character, competence, and long-term commitment can be proven and will yield large dividends.


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