Monday, March 31, 2014

College Applications: Letters of Rec and the College Essay

One of the biggest a-ha's I've had as our kids have gone through this process is the actual application and the importance of the essay and the letters of recommendation. Make no mistake, both are super important. It's not just about grades and test scores.
Here's a terrific article(s) about writing the college essay.
As for the letters of recommendation, it is really important that your high school senior really thinks about this, talk about this. I've heard from both guidance counselors and admissions officers that a letter of recommendation is not the slam dunk you may think it is.  As the applying student (and as the parent) you are asked to check the box on the form to give up permission to see the letter. The idea of course is that the writer of the letter can and should be as honest as possible when writing about your son or daughter, no sugar coating. Of course that's what you want.
Usually colleges ask for two letters of rec. But sometimes they'll request (or allow) one or two more. When talking to your high school senior ask them about teachers they've had junior year, that they currently have. Maybe a current senior teacher is someone they had earlier in their high school career. It's difficult to expect that a teacher they're just having now for the first time, will really know them well enough to make thoughtful comments about your child, especially if your student is applying early. Think about two teachers that may compliment your senior, meaning a humanities teacher and a math/science teacher. If your student is an athlete, perhaps their coach or a musician, their band leader or music teacher. Maybe they've been volunteering in a hospital for the last few years or working during the school year or over the summer and their boss would be a good choice. Perhaps they're involved at their church or synagogue and the spiritual leader knows them well enough to write on their behalf. The key is here that a person who's asked to write a letter of recommendation truly knows the student. A friend of mine in admissions once told me that he couldeasily tell if the letter was written by someone who didn't know the kid. "I read thousands of these letters and I can distinguish between sincerity and canned speak." 
You want someone to write on your student's behalf that really knows them, that will be honest in their recommendation. Encourage your senior to ask these people now! If they haven't done so already. These people are asked to write several and in some cases dozens of letters a year for their students. There are always a handful of very special teachers that are asked by just about everyone it seems. Keep in mind that they also have a "day job" and this isn't exactly a job requirement. They're doing this for our kids as a favor, really. I have such admiration for these teachers that take so much time, thought and caring when writing on our kids' behalf to these colleges, it's really wonderful. But as the saying goes, "the early bird, catches the worm." Also, if you ask the teachers early, they start thinking about your kid.
Another recommendation is to encourage your student to sit down with that teacher, resume in hand, to tell them a bit about themselves. That US History teacher may only see your kid once a day for 50 minutes and has no idea that your kid: plays the trombone in the band, volunteers for Habitat for Humanity and works at the local skating rink year round (or whatever).
It's September. Get your senior writing that essay(s) and asking teachers if they'd write a letter of recommendation on their behalf! You'll be glad they did!

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