Recommendation Letters

Recommendations are  a very important, and yet the most underestimated, part of the college applications. By now you may have heard the spiel that admission officers expect very highly of your personal statements (the college application essays) mostly because it’s the only place where they get to know and, depending on how good you are with your rhetoric, SEE your personality. (psst If you didn’t get what I meant by “SEE”, then check out last week’s post about college essays and particularly about the  SHOW DON’T TELL advice.”)  

And that’s all true. Your personal statements indeed allow others  to hear about the person you are outside the realm of academics and numbers. But there’s one thing they fail at. Personal statements are accounts written by YOU about yourself, your personalities, and your accomplishments. And it’s not unusual that people try to exaggerate their positive side and hide their negative sides. That’s why admission officers are always looking for Teacher and Counselor recommendations. They want to hear about you from someone else that’s neither you nor your friend. 
There’s a reason why habesha parents try to investigate and find out about the man their daughter is about to marry through other people rather than directly confronting him.  There is a reason why they “mastenat” him by their super secret source of knowledge (aka gossiping with other people). But anyways, I digress.

Before I go into any details, let me first walk you through some scenario. Suppose I wrote to you a two page letter today describing how I am a brilliant mathematician, an astonishing physicist, an inspiring activist, a dazzling musician, a charitable giver, an incredible orator, a phenomenal singer and a virtuoso painter. You would never come close to believing me, will you? Plus, who am I kidding, I’m not really that good at painting :).    

But suppose it was my Biology professor that was sending you an email about how he has seen me consistently participate in the class, show an incredible level of dedication in my semester long project about “Hygiene and its health impacts in Ethiopia” where I showed not only great leadership skills in organizing my teammates throughout the process but also an insightful understanding in my final paper that I submitted. He also recounts to you how proud he was when I helped with organizing  a “Save the planet, or if not,  just clean Addis” community event where I help mobilize the students in our school to go out and clean the neighborhood. And suppose he also mentions to you in his email about a particular conversation we had about “Cultural medicines in the rural regions and their astonishing effectiveness” and how he realized that day not only how passionate I was about herbal medicine but also how inquisitive and committed I am in my quest to learn and discover new and relevant things.  Then you would have no reason but to believe him and be impressed by the driven and self-motivated person that I am. 

THAT’S WHY RECOMMENDATIONS CAN BE EXTREMELY HELPFUL in your college applications if done right. As you set on your endeavors of trying to convince college admission officers about why they should accept you, having someone like your professor put in word for you about how you are “an Einstein in the class,  a Martin Luther King in the afternoon, a Spider man at night and a Mother Theresa in the weekends.” would most definitely help. 

Now in all my attempt to entertain you long enough to read the whole of this post, I hope you’ve got my point: Stories of heroism sound more plausible and captivating when they’re told by someone other than the hero. 

That said, I can only wish that I have convinced you to see recommendation letters as much more important than you used to before reading this post. It’s highly advisable that you ask your teachers to write you a recommendation at least a month in advance before your application deadlines.   Here are two more short readings that we recommend you do as you think about recommendations. Maybe you can also make your teachers read these too so that they understand how much their recommendations can have an impact on your future and how they should go on about writing you one.



The Author is a rising senior at Columbia University studying Computer Science and Applied Mathematics.

Leave a Reply