Probably the most annoying part of applying to college is begging your high-school teachers for recommendation letters, a routine the teachers no doubt find just as annoying. With most colleges receiving thousands, or tens of thousands, of applications every year, and with each application including two or three of those letters, does anyone take the time to really read them? After all, surely quantitative metrics such as grade point average and SAT scores make comparing candidates much easier, faster, and more objective. As universities cut budgets across the board, it must be tempting for increasingly crunched admissions officers to skim, or skip, many of the letters they receive.
This question has so dogged generations of college applicants that the New York Times asked Martha Merrill, Connecticut College dean of admission, to finally weigh in, on the record. In the New York Times blog "The Choice," which is dedicated to all things college admissions, Merrill acknowledges that many students, parents, and letter writers suspect that recommendations go unread. But she insists that college admissions read every one.
I’m often asked about the wild card in the college application: the teacher recommendation. Prospective students have quite a bit of control over their applications — they choose where to apply, they write and re-write essays, they work hard to keep their grades up senior year and they are mindful of deadlines. But then there is that teacher recommendation.
Most students want to know if the recommendations matter, if we even read them. At Connecticut College, we require two teacher recommendations, and yes, we read them.
Merrill even offers advice on how to solicit a good recommendation. Tellingly, Merrill puts heavy emphasis on the letter being well-written. In fact, she discusses the importance of the letter's quality of writing as much as what the letter actually says about the student. That's telling because only someone who reads hundreds or thousands of recommendation letters would be so concerned with whether or not they had good prose.