Recommendations for Letters of Recommendation

Admit It! You likely think that the more letters of recommendation you send, the better your chances of admission.  I’m here to tell you that’s not in fact the case.  In fact, the opposite is closer to the truth.  Has your mother ever said to you “it’s not about what you say, it’s how you say it.”  There’s a corollary for letters of recommendation; it’s not about how many recommendations there are in your file but it’s about the substance of those letters that are.

Why do admission offices ask for recommendations?  It’s simply part of a holistic review process.  Transcripts and standardized test scores can tell us about your classroom performance, and extracurricular activities can tell us about how you see yourself, but recommendations tell us how others see you.  Who are you as a student in a classroom?  Who are you as a member of a community?  How do you compare to your peers with whom these recommenders interact?  Recommendations help us to get a three-dimensional sense of who you are not only as a student, but also as an individual.

The only letter of recommendation W&M requires is from your guidance counselor.  While we recognize that not all students have the opportunity to interact a great deal with their counselors (this can be especially true in large high schools where counselors’ case loads are quite large) counselors can provide us great context for who you are in relation to your classmates.  They can tell us if your course load is particularly demanding (for example: are you the only student to take both AP Physics and AP Calculus or does the school limit honors classes to four per year but you’ve taken six or did you forego a study hall to take an extra course), they can tell us about any extenuating circumstances that might have impacted your grades (such as a scheduling conflict or long-term illness).  They can give us a sense of how visible you are within your peer group and they can provide us more information about your high school in general.

Additional letters of recommendation are optional.  If you wish to send a few additional letters, you are welcome to do so, the operative word being few.  The record for one applicant is 17 distinct letters of recommendation.  DO NOT ATTEMPT TO CHALLENGE THAT.  There’s a theory among admission officers that the thicker the file, the less competitive the applicant; it’s as if you’re trying to overcompensate for something you feel is lacking if you make your application so thick only book binding could hold it all together.  You should send no more than one or maximum two additional letters of recommendation.

We generally recommend (pun intended) that any additional letters be from teachers of academic subjects.  People often ask us if we’d prefer a letter from an AP teacher as opposed to an honors teacher or a letter from their history teacher when they intend to major in history….  The best advice is to select teachers who know you well and who can write something substantive on your behalf.  Letters that simply restate what we already know (that you’re a strong student, that list your extracurricular activities and classes and GPA) do not add anything new to your application.  Letters that tell us stories, that give us context for who you are, that tell us what you have contributed to your high school and what you could potentially contribute to a college campus…those letters are helpful.  Pick teachers who can address those questions and others like it.  You are welcome to send letters from coaches, employers, religious leaders, and the like but keep in mind that they cannot speak to who you are as a student but teachers can generally speak to who you are both as a student and as a person.  Sometimes, students think it helps to send a letter from someone who uses fancy stationary and who has a way-cool title (members of Congress or the Governor for example) but it’s clear from reading those letters that not only does that person not know you, that person also didn’t write the letter (i.e. an aide wrote the letter).  Those letters do not help advance your application.  We also have no specified format.  Letters can be sent with the Common Application Teacher Recommendation forms or without.

How do we put letters in context?  Well, if your high school class is large we recognize that the letter from your counselor may not have as much depth as the letter from a counselor who has only 70 students in the senior class.  We also look at the context of the school to get a sense of the spectrum of students with whom your teacher is interacting.  Rest assured that poorly written recommendations are not held against the you, the applicant.  If there are grammatical or spelling errors or a teacher calls you John instead of David, we do not hold that against you.  That letter may not help you but it certainly won’t hurt you.  However, remember the best letters will be written by those who know you best and who are least likely to call you David.

And as a public service announcement on behalf of all of your teachers and counselors, you are not the only person asking them for a recommendation.  And most applications are due at the same time.  If you and your 25 friends ask the same English teacher for a recommendation two weeks before it’s due, either some of you are going without letters or you’ll all get letters but they may not be the teacher’s best work.  REQUEST LETTERS AHEAD OF TIME.  Many would love it if you asked before you left school at the end of your junior year or at worst, ask right when you begin your senior year.

And the best part about recommendations, they’re a part of the application you don’t have to complete!  You just have to make a request, provide some information, and wait for the mail to arrive in our office.  We endorse recommendations; in fact we recommendyou submit them.

Wendy Livingston ’03, M.Ed. ‘09
Senior Assistant Dean of Admission

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