Some people seem to think that application requirements are for average applicants and if they want to show a school they are especially worthy, they have to go above and beyond those stated requirements. I promise you that colleges ask for the items they want to review. There is no hidden message that we really want something else.
Today, I thought I would share my thoughts about recommendation letters. Hopefully, you'll understand what we are looking for as we work through this part of your file and you'll realize that for the vast majority of applicants, the two required recommendations fulfill our needs. Sending a bunch of repetitive recommendations doesn't help us in our review. If someone tells you that UVA wants a bunch of extra recommendations, show them this blog post.
The Counselor RecommendationYour counselor will send us your high school profile, transcript, a school form with some basic information on it, and their recommendation. The recommendation can take any form. Many counselors write a letter, some bullet out a few statements about their student, and some schools have a form that that prompts their counselors to cover different topics. It all works for us. A school in one of my territories has a large senior class and 100% of the class typically goes on to a two or four year college. As you can imagine, those counselors are BUSY. When they created a form with areas to address different topics (academics, extracurricular, character, outside issues that may have impacted the student), it was a great move for both "sides" of the desk.
What would happen if a counselor didn't know a student well? Those counselors will sometimes share what they have learned from the student's file or from conversations with the students' teachers. There is also a way for counselors to let us know if the constraints of their job prevent them from writing a recommendation. In those cases, the school form is sufficient.
The Teacher RecommendationWe require one teacher recommendation here, but we don't specify the grade level or subject area for that teacher. We want you to pick the teacher who you think has the best insight into your classroom performance and style. Who might talk about your role in class discussion or your style when working on a group project? Who might have a story about you working really hard to get through a particularly different concept? That's the teacher you should ask!
These recommendations aren't about summarizing information we will learn from other parts of the application, so I don't recommend giving your teacher your activity list. You could remind them about the project you did that impressed them or about the time they asked to hold onto something you did so they could use it as an example. Those little anecdotes bring the data that we get in the rest of the application to life.
If you feel like your style is dramatically different in different classrooms, it might make sense to send an extra teacher recommendation.
"Other" RecommendationsWhen it comes to recommendations from folks who don't know you in the classroom, I think you have to be careful. Recommendations in the working world have a different purpose than academic recommendations. Academic recommendations supplement the data. Recommendations from outside academia are usually simple endorsements that restate the facts. Having a supervisor at work or where you participate in an activity certify that you do, in fact, work at that place does not provide us with new information. You've probably told us about this in the activity section of the application.
We turned the "other" recommendation feature off in the Common App. Stick with recommendations from people who know you through school.
Do you have any questions about recommendations? Feel free to post them in the comments.