How to Get the Most Out of Teacher Recommendation Letters

Posted on October 15th, 2019 by acsrochester

The applications of five students with similar grades, test scores, and extracurriculars landed on my desk. “Emily, we can add two more Biology students,” the Dean of Admission shared. “Would you mind presenting these applications in Admission Committee and helping decide which students are the right fit?”

Throughout application review season, I faced the same dilemma: how would we make fine distinctions between students with similar academic qualifications? The students would have strong grades in rigorous curriculums and test scores that fell into our published ranges. They all took advantage of the clubs, sports, and volunteer opportunities at their schools.

More often than not, the key to finding students who were the right fit for the college was the detailed information found in teacher recommendation letters.

Teacher recommendation letters impact admission decisions, especially at highly-selective colleges. Teachers spend the most time with students and can share insights on students’ engagement in class discussion and the quality of their work product. Through recommendation letters, teachers can also shed light on who the student will be in a college classroom, information that is most helpful to Admission Committees.

It is important for students to ask the right teachers. When faced with the task of narrowing down students for the Biology Department, the Admission Committee would lean on letters from math and science teachers. Similarly, if we were narrowing down potential Creative Writing majors, we would put great emphasis on an English teacher’s recommendation. For students who were undecided, letters from one STEM and one Humanities teacher would provide the Admission Committee with the right perspective.

Choosing teachers who know the student well is also helpful. That’s why it is important for students to genuinely engage with their teachers. One way to do this is for students to stay after class to continue conversations on topics that are of particular interest. Through such discussions, students can demonstrate their knowledge of the material and teachers have a chance to learn more about the student.

In order to narrow down our group of Biology applicants in Admission Committee, we focused on students whose teacher recommendations pointed to students’ engagement and intellectual curiosity. From the letters, we wanted feedback on whether the students sought opportunities to extend their learning and how they compared to their classmates. Because of the insightful teacher recommendation letters, we felt confident the two students we selected would impact not only the college classroom but the greater campus as well. 

Want to learn more about teacher recommendations?

Join me for the FREE upcoming webinar “Teacher Recommendations – How to Impact Your College Applications” on Thursday, October 17th from 7:30 p.m. – 8:00 p.m. I will share tips on which teachers to ask for letters and how to ensure they highlight your strengths.


Emily Nevinger

Emily Nevinger

Emily is Associate Director of Admissions and College Advising Consultant at Allendale Columbia School. After serving as the Interim College Advisor in Fall 2018, Emily took on a role to offer students and families outside AC with guidance in the college admissions process. Her role has since expanded to the Admissions team, where she helps prospective families learn more about AC's innovative education. Emily joined AC from Emory University where she directed the selection process for more than 20,000 freshmen candidates each year. She started working at the university level in 2003 and was a senior member of the admission committees for University of Miami, Emory University, and UNC Chapel Hill. Emily holds a bachelor’s degree in Public Policy from Duke University, a Master of Higher Education Administration and Enrollment Management from the University of Miami, and a Certificate in College Access Counseling from Rice University.


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