I highly recommend this article for high school freshmen, sophomores and juniors, as well as rising seniors. I encourage students to develop their classroom participation and establish teacher relationships their first year in high school. Early Intervention Is The Key!
For colleges trying to go beyond simple number-crunching and do more of a “holistic” review of an applicant’s credentials for admission, academic or teacher recommendations are invaluable.
“Teacher recommendations are more important than ever,” commented John Gaines, Vanderbilt’s director of admissions, at a recent Higher Education Consultants Association (HECA) conference. “Tell your students to think about teachers who challenge them in a classroom and who can shed light on how they ‘engage’ in class discussions.”
But like everything else in the admissions process, there is no single standard for what should be submitted. Colleges vary in terms of how many recommendations they require or will accept as part of an application package, and they vary in terms of level of specificity about which teachers they want to hear from.
As a rule of thumb, most colleges want one counselor recommendation and one teacher recommendation. But this isn’t always so predictable. Because many ask for two teacher recommendations, it’s usually a good idea to have two, preferably junior year, teacher recommenders on board by the time senior year rolls around.
And these should be from academic subject areas. While you might have an excellent relationship with your Driver’s Ed instructor, colleges pretty much want recommendations from teachers in academic classes like English, calculus, or physics. Foreign language teachers are usually acceptable, especially if they taught higher level classes like French III or AP Spanish.
And keep in mind that colleges may be a little fussy about who the recommenders should be.
For example, Cal Tech, Harvey Mudd, and MIT want one recommendation from a math/science instructor and one from a social studies/humanities instructor. The U.S. Coast Guard Academy wants one from a math instructor and one from an English instructor, while the Curtis Institute of Music wants recommendations from professional musicians or music instructors.
Some colleges may accept or are actually looking for character references outside of school. Pepperdine University and Lesley University specify that personal references may be acceptable substitutes for teacher evaluations. And in an interesting twist on the recommendation requirement, Dartmouth and Davidson require “peer” evaluations in addition to two teacher recommendations.
In fact, the new Common Application has made personal or character recommendations another option by adding a special form for them to use.
Locally, Gallaudet, Johns Hopkins, and Washington and Lee require two teacher recommendations. The U.S. Naval Academy requires three, while UVa only requires one in addition to the guidance counselor’s school report. Virginia Tech and the College of William and Mary require no teacher recommendations, but will consider them if they are provided.
In general, the Common Application is good about letting you know how many recommendations are required and how many will be considered (allowed to be sent). Don’t overdo it. Too many recommendations may not be a good thing especially if you haven’t put too much thought into who is doing the writing.
This time of year, colleges are putting their finishing touches on application requirements for next year. As you finalize your list, research individual college websites for how many recommendations—counselor, teacher, or personal—your schools require and make sure you line them up well in advance of deadlines.
You might also want to check if your recommenders prefer to send their materials electronically or via the USPS. And once your favorite electronic application goes online or once the college posts its own electronic application form, make arrangements for the application to connect with the recommender—if he or she prefers to go high tech.