4 Myths About American College Recommendation Letters | Best Global Universities
Julia Mansur Cardoso from Brazil was more than prepared when she applied to American universities. She made sure to reach out to contacts quickly for letters of recommendation and got five separate letters, so she could use different ones for different college programs.
“I had my list of colleges ready before I asked for most of the letters of recommendation,” says Cardoso, who ended up at the University of Kentucky. “Most of the schools I applied to needed three, so I thought five would be a good number given that I was applying for somewhat different programs, all related to management and economics.
Although not all schools need them, letters of recommendation can help prospective international students stand out in an increasingly competitive pool of applicants.
“Recommendations are very important in demonstrating that a candidate has the personal qualities that will enable them to succeed in college,” says Cathy Costa, founder of Costa Educational Consulting. “And some schools weigh more heavily on recommendations than others.”
Many students who wish to travel to the United States for college come from high schools where staff members speak English and can write letters in that language. But experts say universities also generally accept letters that have been translated.
Prospective international students unfamiliar with the US college application process may have misconceptions about the role of letters of recommendation. Here are some things students should know.
Myth 1: Grades and test scores matter more
All parts of a student’s application are reviewed by the admissions committee, and grades and test scores are just one factor — especially in a holistic and highly selective admissions process, experts say .
“Everything matters,” says Amy Hoffman, associate director of admissions for academic screening and initiatives at the University of Miami in Florida. “I just said to a student today at a college fair, ‘You’ve worked too hard for the past three plus years to come to be defined by a number.'”
“Of course, numbers matter,” says Hoffman. “Colleges want students who will succeed on their campuses, but looking beyond the numbers says more about the student than just grades.”
Myth 2: No one reads letters of recommendation anyway
Prospective international students may think that those reviewing their application don’t even bother to read the letters, but that’s not the case.
“This is absolutely not true! At Grinnell, we read letters of recommendation,” says Sarah Fischer, assistant vice president of admissions at Grinnell College in Iowa.
She says the letters add an important dimension to the app by helping a school better understand students’ personalities and the roles they play in the classroom, their school and their community.
“Letters of recommendation also give us insight into any special circumstances that may have affected the student’s learning and they can shed light on the student’s life experiences,” says Fischer.
Hoffman has been reviewing applications for 10 years. She says she has read thousands of letters of recommendation and respects the time and thought of teachers and counselors who carefully use “the right adjectives and descriptors to let us really know the character, abilities and tenacity of the ‘student”.
Myth 3: A letter from a high-profile person is better
Obtaining a letter from a top academic or other leader who barely knows the student will not get extra points for the candidate.
“Honestly, I rarely look at the title of the person writing the letter,” Hoffman says. “The more the recommender not only knows the student, but can genuinely speak to their character, qualities and abilities, the more weight this letter will have, regardless of the title.”
Cardoso says getting a letter of recommendation from a teacher who knew her well was most important to her.
“It’s better to ask someone who really knows you than a random teacher in your area of interest,” says Cardoso.
Additionally, Costa says that a high-profile letter can be seen as a name right or cancellation, “which could be seen as an unpleasant display of the student’s sense of privilege.”
However, she says, if the well-known person knows the student very well through direct experience, “it can be a powerful endorsement.”
Myth 4: The more letters, the better
Quality matters more than quantity with letters of recommendation, experts say.
“In almost all cases, a succinct, well-written letter may not only suffice, but will contain exactly what the admissions office needs to know about the student,” says Hoffman.
Costa says the number of letters required is listed on the common application and most schools don’t want more than listed.
“It adds to their workload and indicates that the student is not following instructions or not enjoying admissions time,” Costa says.
Even among schools that allow multiple letters, she recommends that students use good judgment and only include letters that add value and tell the admissions committee something they’re interested in that they don’t already know. .
“More is not always better,” says Fischer. “If the volume is too large, it can also exhaust the application player and remove other good things from the file that need attention.”