Letters of Recommendation That Make a Difference (Part One)

Written by Nell McCormack Abom, Host Smart Talk TV | Sep 29, 2009 11:10 AM

First, let’s take a look at how/where letters of recommendation fit in the admission process. They are important to admission officers because they provide contextual interpretation for your academic performance. Writers share critical insight into your work habits and learning style as well as your ability to respond to challenges/setbacks. They can help explain irregularities in your academic program and/or performance and shed light into key factors that define your learning environment.

So, who should you choose to write your letters? The people best positioned to support your application are those who know you well from your recent work in the classroom. They are familiar with your intellectual abilities and academic skills. They have watched you respond to a range of challenges in the classroom and understand your capacity/desire to learn. They are your teachers, counselors and advisors—they are your champions. Let them help you.

Finally, you may find it useful to involve as recommenders people from the community who provide perspectives that validate your out-of-classroom experiences. For example, a letter from a private music teacher who attests to your diligent preparation, ability to perform under pressure, and determination to compete at a certain level will cast your private music study in more substantive light. Similarly, the coordinator of a local homeless shelter can testify to your selflessness and generosity and an employer can attest to your responsibility on the job.

Resist the temptation, however, to collect letters of recommendation from important people in the community whose sole contribution will be to say nice things about you and your family. Before asking clergy, politicians, well-connected family friends, or other prominent citizens for recommendations, ask yourself: “What is it that this person can say about me that my teachers and counselor will not already have said?” If the individual can shed personal insight into the way you approach your work, interact with others, or react to setbacks, the letter might be helpful. Otherwise, it just adds to the weight of your file.

Peter Van Buskirk is an author, consultant, speaker and creator of the Best College Fit™ Resources. Visit to learn more about Peter and his student-centered approach to college planning.

Published in Life After 12th Grade

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