What makes recommendations to US universities unique

Updated: Jun 3, 2019

Letters of recommendation are sometimes an admissions committee’s only opportunity to get a sense of your character. Your grades attest to your hard work and dedication; your extracurricular achievements show your passions and interests; your test scores prove your ability to prepare for college-level exams. Sure, essays can show a glimpse (or, in some cases, even more than a glimpse) of your personality — but your recommendations present to a university a (hopefully) impartial perspective on why you, with all of your excellent qualities, are a good match for your top school.


We’ve already given you five tips for a stellar letter of recommendation, but I’d like to take the time here to discuss what makes a letter of recommendation to an American university different from, say, a letter of recommendation to a European one. This is especially important to bear in mind when asking your teachers, who may or may not be American, to write one for you!


It’s key to note that these letters of recommendation are not meant to prove that you are adequate for admission to university — your grades, test scores, and extracurriculars should prove that. These letters are meant to prove that you are not only adequate, but also deserving of admission: that you, out of all candidates, would make campus a better place, whatever that might mean in your particular case. Maybe you make campus a more inquisitive place; maybe you make it more a better place for student activism. Maybe your chemistry genius will move your dream school’s research years into the future…


But with that, it’s not enough for these letters to just describe your qualities. I once had a teacher show me a letter of recommendation after he had submitted it (to a summer program, thank goodness!), and it went something along the following lines: “Leora is a good student. She is curious and always asks questions. She is a pleasure to have in class. I highly recommend her for this program.”


I was waitlisted for the program, despite my excellent grades and essays, and I like to think that it was because of this letter. My teacher hadn’t shown them why I deserved to participate; he just showed them that I met the baseline for a student who could do well. An excellent letter of recommendation would not only claim that I am “curious and always ask questions,” but give the reader specific examples of my doing so and benefiting/contributing to the class. That’s what convinces the reader that you are not only competent, but also have the potential to positively affect the atmosphere around you, be it intellectually or otherwise.


American letters of recommendation are also very interested in development. Admissions committees are very aware that students entering their universities will grow and change a tremendous amount over the course of their four years there. With that, admissions committees need to know that students can not only handle it, but thrive. They anticipate that recommenders will have seen some kind of growth on students’ part and want to hear about it, lest there be any concern that the student won’t be able to handle the demanding pace of university.



My teacher could have shown both that I deserved to participate and that I had the capability to grow and develop in the program I applied to by writing something along the following lines:


“Leora’s curiosity is evident in all that she does: naturally, she asks many questions in class, but also encourages both me and her classmates to consider the works we read in class more deeply with every assignment and every comment made. Once, (specific example)...”


Your recommenders need to prove that your qualities — both intellectual and otherwise — will make a positive addition to the campus you hope to be on. Making a blanket list/statement like “Leora is a curious student” doesn’t help anyone: be sure that they substantiate their letters with concrete examples and send a message that you not only are good enough to be there, but also deserve to be there — and would be making campus a better place by doing so.

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