College Admissions Officers’ Advice about Letters of Recommendation

Copyright Creative Marbles Consultancy 2012

As a part of college applications, a recommender’s job is sharing anecdotal evidence to demonstrate the dimension and strength of a student’s character. And, in the age of COVID, when admissions evaluations may be more subjective without a standardized test score being required, recommenders can present the students’ qualifications for admissions. 

To assist counselors and teachers in writing their recommendations, the following is college admissions officers’ advice

A recommendation letter should highlight something new [as in not stated elsewhere in the application].”  

From Georgia Tech’s Mikala Bush (bold emphasis added by CMC)

Admissions officers seek understanding of the person,\ who’s applying and their motivations, which can’t be readily perceived from GPA’s and resumes. As MIT’s admissions officers state:

They [recommenders] should provide us with the information and impressions we cannot glean from the rest of the application.

bold emphasis added by CMC

Georgia Tech’s Ms. Bush offers specific suggestions for teachers: 

If you are a teacher, highlighting a project that a student completed, how they interact with others in class, [collaboration with others is a quality admissions officers at other universities have also emphasized are useful]  how they react to challenges, or the insightful questions that they bring to the discussion can really help tell a more complete story. 

bold emphasis added by CMC

Johns Hopkins admissions officers also encourage teachers to write about their experiences teaching the student, assessing the student’s academic potential and intellectual curiosity, rather than re-stating the student’s resume.

And Ms. Bush from Georgia Tech advises counselors: 

If you are a counselor, ask yourself: How is this student different from others in the class, grade, school, etc.? How is this student perceived by peers and faculty? What might this student undersell or not see in themselves that I can highlight? 

bold emphasis added by CMC

Some additional suggestions from MIT’s admissions staff:

What is the context of your relationship with the applicant? If you do not know the applicant well and are only able to write a brief summary, please acknowledge this.

How does the applicant interact with teachers? With peers? Describe their personality and social skills.

What will you remember most about this person?

If you have knowledge of MIT, what leads you to believe MIT is a good match for this person? How might they fit into the MIT community and grow from the MIT experience?

Has the applicant ever experienced disappointment or failure? If so, how did they react?

MIT’s admissions officers also suggests how recommenders can help applicants stand out amidst the volume of applications each year:

Please pay special attention to the opening and closing of your evaluation. Remember, we are reading over 20,000 applications, and we appreciate strong statements that we’ll remember as we evaluate each candidate. 

bold emphasis added by CMC

Lastly, given the COVID-disruption of K-12 schools, Johns Hopkins admissions officers advise counselors to update the “School Profile” (which is submitted in conjunction with their letter of recommendation), providing additional description of the COVID-influenced distance learning at their specific school. Then, students’ transcripts can be understood amonst the circumstances and changed academic expectations since Spring 2020:

We recommend focusing on school-wide or district-wide changes in scheduling, grading policies, class availability, other school policies, resource availability, and general challenges that your students have faced as a result of the current pandemic. If you have student-specific COVID-19 related updates or information, those can also be shared.  

bold emphasis added by CMC

As students request letters of recommendation, perhaps sharing this post may be useful for your teachers and counselor, or for other mentors who may provide additional letters of recommendation. 


In the midst of our 17th year helping applicants apply to colleges through the US, contact Creative Marbles Consultancy’s experts about making the most valuable investment in a college education.

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About Jill Yoshikawa, Ed M, Partner of Creative Marbles Consultancy

Jill Yoshikawa, EdM, Harvard ’99, a seasoned, 25 year educator and consultant, is meticulous in helping clients navigate all aspects of the educational experience, no matter the level of complexity. She combines educational theory with experience to advise families, schools and educators. A UCSD and Harvard graduate, as well as a former high school teacher, Jill works tirelessly to help her clients succeed.
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