It is no secret that academic records, extra-curricular activities and essays are of monolithic importance when it comes to applying to colleges overseas. However, it should be kept in mind that the college admission committees do not overlook any part of the application. So, negligence in any portion of the application can certainly make things worse. This issue of 'Applying to universities overseas' will delineate the fundamentals of recommendation letters.
What are recommendation letters?
Signet Education, an international admissions consultancy has defined the topic with clarity- "Recommendations are generally written by teachers or school counsellors, whom admissions officers consider their peers. So they put a lot of stock into what teachers and counsellors say."
Most universities require the candidate to send one to three recommendation letters usually from the school counsellor and at least one teacher. While applying via Common Application, one of the most used college application portals, a counsellor letter has to be submitted. That very letter will later be sent to all of the applied colleges along with the rest of the documents. It is important to note that the submission of the letters will be done by the teachers or counsellors themselves.
Recommenders and counsellors- who are they?
In addition to teachers, there is a wide array of individuals who qualify as recommenders depending on the colleges: Parents, clergy, employer, coach, peers and so on. In most cases, the letters not penned by the teachers fall into the category of optional recommendation letters.
The most important of all is the school counsellor letter. Some institutions consist of a teacher whose responsibility is to carry out the tasks of a school counsellor. If there is not anyone already assigned, the applicant can personally choose a teacher to be his/her counsellor. The tasks of the counsellor do not end at sending the letter. The Common Application has been designed for the counsellor to be the only person able to send the applicant's academic transcripts.
Importance of recommendation letters
According to IvyWise, a renowned educational consultancy, college applications consist of two parts-- 'hard factors' (quantitative factors such as academic scores) and 'soft factors' such as essays, extra-curricular activities (ECAs) and recommendation letters. Apart from the essays, where applicants express their stories in their own renditions, these letters are the only outside validation that college admissions officers have of what students say about themselves in essays or on the activity list. Admissions officers consider the recommenders to be their peers and treat their statements with such importance. It is not just a matter of validation but the extra insight that the college can gather from the letters.
Beth Onofry, one of Signet's Admissions Consultants, shared her views on the matter, "Colleges usually look at the factual information and then some of the personal information (like the essay) first, and then add in external perspectives on the student (the recommendations). A lot of times, the personal essay is less academic and more about the extracurricular experience; so recommendations can provide more context for a student's academics."
The admission officers look for extra information that cannot be found anywhere else in the application. With the help of the teacher's observations, they can understand whether the person is cooperative or not, industrious or strategically passing the exams and so on. After perusal of the letters, the committee reaches a conclusion on whether the characteristics of the applicant in question are aligned with the college's values.
Choosing the right recommenders
It is understandable that not all teachers will possess the same writing finesse. However, what matters is the content inside the letters. Hilary Cairns, a graduate of SUNY New Paltz, New York and author at College Raptor, believes that the choice of recommenders should depend on the relationship between the student and the teacher.
"Since you're often choosing a professional, choose someone you're close with to write the letter; the recommendation will reflect on your own professionalism, respect for others, and actions in the classroom."
The teacher needs to be close with the applicant so that personal observations can be made. It is preferred that the teacher in question be in charge of a subject that is relevant to the future plans of the student. The students have to scrutinise more while choosing a counsellor since they will have a lot of duties to perform before the end of the deadline.
Outline of an effective letter
Getting to the brass tacks, there are some points to be checked while writing a recommendation and counsellor letter. The teachers will need to know them for strengthening the application further. There are some basic questions that should be answered by an effective recommendation letter according to MIT, Ivy league blogs and Prep Scholar.
Things that a recommendations letter should discuss include-- the context of the teacher's relationship with the applicant, the applicant's unusual competence, talent or leadership ability, motivation, how does the applicant interact with teachers and peers, their personality and social skills, experience with disappointment or failure, where the applicant stands out, what new the applicant can bring and how s/he can fit into the college's future plans, etc.
A recommendation letter cannot be the reiteration of your entire CV. It has to reflect more than just your academics and more importantly, it has to be coherent with all of the components of your entire application.
As the dean of Admissions at Harvard College said in an interview with Prep Scholar, "Recommendations can help us to see well beyond test scores and grades and other credentials, and can illuminate such personal qualities as character and leadership as well as intellectual curiosity, creativity, and love of learning."
Recommendation letters present you through the lens of the teachers who have seen you for years. It is up to the college to decide whether the peek through that lens correlates with their vision. So, make sure that this letter does not stand in the way of you walking through the gates of your dreams.