College Recommendation Letters

Recommendation letters play a significant role in the college admissions process.  The Princeton Review writes that “colleges use the letter of recommendation to assess [a student’s] passions, goals, and character. They want more than just a statistic.”   The letters allow admission officers to see the student as an applicant from a different viewpoint.  All colleges and universities have different policies regarding recommendations and some also have specific requirements on who should write the letters.  Therefore, it is important to read the college application carefully so it is clear what is expected.

The one exception is that it’s generally acceptable to send two letters of recommendation if a college asks for just one.  A strong recommendation can paint a vivid picture of a student and may be the decisive factor for students with weaker grades or test scores.  On the other hand, PLEASE REFRAIN from submitting more than three letters (unless specified by the college). Additional letters usually don’t help much, and they might irritate the admission officers who may think the student has a problem with following instructions. The letters should be distinct; each one should reveal a strong connection to the student and should reflect their perspective of the student’s unique talents and abilities.

What is a strong connection?
A high school teacher that your student has built a good academic relationship with is a strong connection.  A coach or an employer that can attest to the student’s character, discipline, and work ethic is a strong connection. An alumnus or current administrator of the prospective school is a strong connection. The MOST important factor is that the recommender must be able to communicate their relationship with the student in a way that will illustrate their potential success in college and/or how the student is likely to perform academically.  

If a letter starts with something like, “I don’t know much about Emily, but if she’s anything like her parents…” you can be sure the letter will most likely be discarded.

“…sign here if you wish to waive your right to see this document…”

You probably see that phrase is most colleges’ recommendations forms. This is your student’s right as stated under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA or the Buckley Amendment). Put simply, the US Congress has passed a bill that gives the student the right to see all documents pertaining to them once they matriculate at a college.  On the form, the college asks if your student wants to waive their rights. If they do, they will not be able to see the documents even after they enter college. It is to your child’s advantage to sign the waiver.

The reason is this: By signing the waiver, your child is effectively stating that they are confident of the recommendation.  Colleges see this confidence as a good sign. They will trust that the letter is more truthful and candid than if it had not been signed. If your child is concerned that the person they asked to write a letter of recommendation might present a negative picture in any way, then consider this a sign they should probably find another person.

Your child should also provide the recommender a copy of their student resume and application essay.  The essay will provide some additional insight about your child and what is important to them and, along with the resume, will help them highlight in their recommendation some of the accomplishments the student has achieved throughout their high school years.  Approach them early, as they need at least a month to prepare the letters, give them the deadline date, and follow up every once in a while (especially with teachers who are writing multiple letters of recommendation). 

Lastly, the student should always provide the reference with stamped and addressed envelopes and should also follow up with thank you notes.  They are taking time out of their busy schedules to help your child, so let them know that their efforts are truly appreciated.  And as a final courtesy, make sure your student keeps them posted on their acceptance status.  It lets them know that the time they invested in their letter of recommendation made a difference!

We are in the business of helping families through the major life transition of sending their children to college.  For many, it will be the most expensive time of their lives and, if not handled properly, could cost them their retirement.  If you or someone you know needs the help and guidance of a trained financial professional, don’t hesitate to contact your local College Planning Relief® licensee, Chris Everett.  Remember, you shouldn’t have to choose between your child’s college and your retirement.