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Tipping the Scales: Letters of Recommendation

Posted in Test Prep on November 15, 2010 by

If your grades or SAT scores are on the borderline of acceptability for your college of choice, sometimes a strong letter of recommendation is the best way to tip the scales in your favor. When I was deferred after applying early decision to Oberlin College, I ran around like a maniac getting everyone but my mailman to write me a recommendation, and ended up getting in the spring.

While I can’t be sure, I have a good idea of which recommendations ended up doing me the most good and why.

I believe that my most effective letter of recommendation came from my AP English teacher who, as the school’s only PhD, was affectionately known as “Doc.” While I didn’t read the letter, I have a good sense of what she would have said based on our conversations. I think that her letter was particularly effective for a couple of reasons.

  • She actually knew me outside the classroom. She knew that I wrote music and poetry, that I read extensively outside of class, and that I was frustrated with my high school environment for what she believed were legitimate reasons. A recommendation that says you’re bright and hardworking in the classroom will only get you so far; after all, schools already know your grades and have seen your application essay.
  • She told them things they didn’t know. Her letter of recommendation contained important things about me as a student, artist, and person. She helped convince them that the fact that my GPA was not as high as my SAT scores and essay suggested they should be (most likely the reason for my initial deferment), was due to an unsuitable school environment rather than laziness on my part.
  • She was familiar with my school of choice and thought I’d be a good fit there. Most letters of recommendations say something to the effect of, “Student X is bright and hardworking and deserves to go to a good school,” and could be mailed out to 10 different schools without making changes. My teacher, on the other hand, knew a lot about Oberlin’s history and reputation for progressive education, and believed the school environment would help me grow in ways my high school (or another college) could not.

To sum up, here’s what this experience taught me about obtaining an effective letter of recommendation:

  1. Find someone who has something specific to say about you and who knows something about you that admissions officers can’t find out any other way. For example, they should already know the quantity of time you spend on a given extracurricular activity, but a good recommender can have something new to say about the quality of that time.
  2. If a school accepts multiple recommendations, get letters that show you from different angles; this will emphasize that you’re a well-rounded person.
  3. Find someone who is familiar with the school you’re applying to, thinks it’s a good fit, and has a good reason why that reflects positively on you.