The Other Essays that are "All About You": Your Recommendations

John Carpenter is back this month to remind students that there are some other essays that are "all about you" -- the recommendations from your counselor and teachers. Read on for his tips on how to get the best writing -- that is, the best results!

In applying to college, writing is enormously important because good writing tells us something we need to know. I spend a lot of time talking to students about writing their essays, and I usually enjoy reading what people have written and hearing the stories.  While there’s a lot of emphasis on creating the perfect essay, there’s another kind of writing where students also have some influence and most high school kids don’t even think about it -- and that’s the recommendations.

Yep, recommendations.  Those other great little essays that are all about you, written by your teachers and counselor.  If you think it’s tough to write a personal statement for an application and a couple of short supplement essays as well, imagine what it’s like for your high school English teacher who is probably writing about 15 or 20 essays--er, I mean, recommendations--for her students.  And then there’s your counselor who, depending on how big your graduating class is, could be writing 15 or 20 -- or even as many as 100 or more.  Seriously! 

It’s work.  No doubt about it.  But for many teachers and counselors, it’s a chance to describe one of their favorite subjects--you.  I’m in the process of writing several counselor recommendations this month--yes, I am a bit of a procrastinator, I admit.  Many of my counselor peers write recommendations during the summer, but that’s not for me.  I prefer to write them when you are fresh in my mind, coming in and out of my office every day. 

I collect images and anecdotes about you, and I talk to people about you before I start the real writing. One of the things I always do is to ask my students to send me a short, short email listing anything they want me to be sure to include in my recommendation.  I’m not promising to include everything they send, but this activity helps me to remember some details I might otherwise forget, and that’s my point in this essay:  you can have some influence on those other essays about you, the ones called recommendations, which your teachers and counselors write. 

My suggestion is to give those people good stuff to work with.  Make their job easier.  First, meet with them to talk about where you’re thinking about applying, and talk to them about why you asked them to be the person to write about you.  Have examples ready of the things you’ve done in class--essays you worked on, conversations you’ve had in class about the subject, topics you really enjoyed, and even topics that you struggled with but in the end conquered and made some real growth with--those kinds of things.  It’s much easier for a recommender to write something clear and distinctive that highlights who you are as a person and a learner when the writer has good material to begin with. 

Some teachers ask for resumes, and that’s great.  But go one step further, and meet with your teacher or counselor, if possible, to go over your resume.  Talk about the things that are the most important to you and tell him or her why. Talk about the issues you’ve worked hard for and the things you care about.   If it’s a classroom teacher, be sure to point out how your resume connects to the subject that he or she teaches.  Emphasize where you have taken what you’ve learned in the classroom and used it somewhere else. 

Once you’ve met with your teacher, send a thank-you note, and then let it go.  What I mean by that is after you and your teacher or counselor have talked about the recommendation, don’t bombard that person again with more information or, worse, questions about how much progress he or she’s made.  Trust that what gets written about you will be good.  Take comfort in knowing that while you’re working on your essays, teachers and counselors are also working on their recommendations, and that all of you are working together to present your strengths in the best possible light.  Be grateful, be humble, and be yourself. 

Remember -- in the recommendations -- you are a story that someone else is going to tell, so help that person out by a bit of thinking ahead of time and some planning.

John Carpenter is Director of Admissions and University Counseling at UWC Costa Rica. He also works as an independent college counselor and is the author of Going Geek: What Every Smart Kid (and Every Smart Parent) Should Know About College AdmissionsYou can find John's blog at




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