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17 min read

All Things Letters of Recommendation [Podcast]

All Things Letters of Recommendation [Podcast]

This is a transcription of a recent podcast episode where Former Dean of Admission and Strategic Advisor to Scoir, Peter Van Buskirk, is joined by the Director of Admissions at Union College, Ann Fleming Brown, to discuss all things related to letters of recommendation.

Listen to the podcast "All Things Letters of Recommendation with Ann Fleming Brown" here



Peter Van Buskirk 0:07
Welcome to Inside College Admissions. My name is Peter Van Buskirk, and today I'm joined by good friend and colleague Ann Fleming Brown, who is the Director of Admissions at Union College in New York. Welcome, Ann.

Ann Fleming Brown 0:17
Thank you, Peter, delighted to be here with you.

Peter Van Buskirk 0:20
Well, I'm delighted that we can get you away from your busy schedule because I know that you're in the midst of trying to wrap up a class. But the next class doesn't wait, does it? I think no sooner than you have one group of incoming students settled in before you have them settled, the next group is already underway. And that's what we're going to talk about today. Because the current juniors are rising, seniors are beginning to realize that this college thing is real for them. And one aspect of that is the need to start getting letters of recommendation. And I'd like for us to have a conversation today about the importance of letters of recommendation, but also help students understand how they can acquire letters that might actually help them in the process. But to get us started, could you give us an orientation to you know, how admission officers regard the letters of recommendation...sort of broad strokes.


How admissions officers consider letters of recommendation

Ann Fleming Brown 1:10
Delighted to do so. So here's the story. When students are evaluated in the admissions office, the first and primary part of the application that we're considering is the transcript and how that represents the school and what the school offers, the depth of courses, and the grades received. So we start there, the recommendations, one from a counselor, and one or two from teachers, support your academic program, particularly the recommendations from teachers speak to you as a learner. Maybe someone who improved over the course of a year in a particular class speaks to the projects that you invested in the work you did, the discoveries you made, the investment you had in your own learning, those are a few of the pieces that we might glean from a recommendation letter. And that so supports what we see on your transcript. So we hope it's going to reflect your academic strengths, maybe a few minor challenges and the things that you've overcome advanced on, perhaps you become a better writer, perhaps you've become better at learning how to learn, all those things are going to be valuable in those teacher recommendations. Of course, there are many other parts of an application. But that for me is the starting point, that story of your academic life.

Peter Van Buskirk 2:43
I like the orientation, you give us right off the bat to the story. Because in so many other contexts, we talk about the importance of students telling the story that is theirs in the application. So what you're saying is the teachers have a rather unique perspective on that story. I'm not sure kids always see that they understand that they need to spend their time in a class with a teacher. But they don't always appreciate that the teacher may actually have an investment in them. How does that come across in that storytelling?

Ann Fleming Brown 3:14
I think, first of all, you want to think about the classes that you've been in, and they're kind of two different categories aren't there. There's the category of I loved this teacher, this teacher was fantastic. And that is something that an experience I hope every student has, but many times that teacher who inspired and influenced and encouraged them. Then there's another kind of relationship we have where we go into a class. Maybe we don't like the teacher at the beginning, maybe we don't think much of the situation. And maybe that all changes over the year. And we really appreciate what that teacher has brought forward. One thing that's very common in the modern educational parlance is the teachers are establishing learning goals and learning outcomes for a class and for each individual student. So a teacher might consider that you started as someone who was a bit haphazard and turning in your homework yet, and you ended as someone who was completely on top of that material and highly organized and engaged. Those are the kinds of things it might be that the teacher looks for your writing skills to have improved, both as an experience for the whole class that everyone's writing skills have improved, and yours in particular, so your teacher is looking at you starting at a certain point, advancing to another point. That is a perspective a teacher may have. So when you're thinking about whom to choose for writing a letter of recommendation, it could be that person with whom you have that close connection, that person may offer all of these things to, or it may be a teacher for home, you advanced beyond what you had anticipated in that class, and that the teacher is going to be able to reflect your experience.

Peter Van Buskirk 5:16
So again, the teachers because of the way they engage in the content of the classroom, but also the expectations they have of students throughout the year, are in a really, really good position to chart your growth, to see where you've started, where you've come from. But they also probably can measure things like your motivation, your determination, your ability to respond to setbacks. Can you think of any situations in the last cycle where you might have found a student who seemingly was tracking well, but there was an oops factor somewhere a grade didn't work out the way maybe it could have, and that there was some sort of recovery but and then that, but the teacher then provides some context for what happened and gives you greater confidence that the student is really ready for admission to your school.


What colleges are looking for in letters of recommendation

Ann Fleming Brown 6:05
I think that "ready for admission" is a very good kind of angle on that. So a couple of things that colleges are looking for. One is for students to be able to solve problems and get past the immediate difficulty. So if a student found that a particular topic in the chemistry class was very challenging, how did that student go past that? If you did poorly on a test, how did you approach it, and here are some of the things that the teacher might share in a letter that would be great for us, the teacher might say, the student came to meet with me about the test that they did not do well on. That would be fantastic. Another might say the student came to meet with me during all of my open hours because this student was challenged by the subject and wanted to review and advance, a teacher might say, or a student might go to a teacher and ask how can I advance improve, learn more in this class, and the teacher would share something like that in a recommendation letter, it's a little bit Are you able to take advantage of the school environment to improve, it's a little bit your maturity, it's a little bit how you're willing to engage a teacher in high school. One thing that we hope, particularly in a small liberal arts college like union, is that you will engage faculty when you come to college. So if we see that in your letters of recommendation, again, not a lot is required here, you need to just connect when the opportunity presents itself with a teacher. And teachers have that expertise. Sometimes they can solve a tangle for a student. and say if you go back and study this particular thing, the other pieces may fall in place. So the teachers have that experience and expertise to allow you to show your ability to shine in the class ability to bring those skills forward to college. One thing that I often recommend to students and many teachers asked for this is for students to remind teachers when they're requesting a letter of recommendation of what they liked in the class, the projects they did the papers they wrote, the things they feel they learned. I mean, some students might say to me, gee, Mrs. Brown, that's kind of, dare I say it sucking up to a teacher. But you know, what you're really doing is giving that teacher a map of your year together, a reminder of the things that you did, some teachers are going to request this, they're gonna say, what class did you take? What were your inputs into the class? What were the projects you did? And that gives the teacher a reminder, a list of pieces that were what you thought about that class, the teacher is going to have things to add to that. But it's a great tool to say my first paper was about Walt Whitman. And you know, my last paper was about Thoreau, and just to trigger some of those memories for a teacher.

Peter Van Buskirk 9:23
I think that's so important because my recollection of watching students get letters of recommendation is that, it's sort of a dreaded task. In some ways, I have to get letters of recommendation, who should I ask? Well, you've given some really good advice about whom to ask, and then what if she doesn't want to do it? And what if she doesn't like me, etc. And my sense is that teachers genuinely are interested in the students success, what better measure of their own success than the success of their students? But then the student will take a deep breath and say, Okay, I'm gonna ask for a letter. Here's the form. It's due November, whatever. Thanks a lot. See you later and they walk away. And I think what a wasted opportunity to your point, this is an opportunity to kind of relive those moments of excitement in the classroom. But it's also an opportunity for the student to consciously connect the story that the teacher is telling about the student with the story the student wants to tell as well. And I guess in the application overall, that synergies kind of important, isn't it?

Ann Fleming Brown 10:25
It is, I mean, I think the other thing that students sometimes forget is that it's very hard to read your minds.

Peter Van Buskirk 10:33
Mm hmm.

Ann Fleming Brown 10:33
So if you are interested, I mean, in becoming an astronaut, if you, therefore, wish to study engineering, or you wish to study astrophysics, wow, that little small detail would be very interesting to a teacher who's a physics teacher writing on your behalf, to speak to your strengths and your plan to continue in that particular area. I think the way that we don't always know what we're going to do in the future, I had always thought that I would like to be President of the United States. And I am, however, very happy as Director of Admissions at Union College.

Peter Van Buskirk 11:16
You're right on schedule.

Ann Fleming Brown 11:18
So each of us has dreams, and many of them will come through. If you want to be a doctor, there's no, it's entirely possible, you may do that. But sharing a little bit of your interest with a teacher, and certainly with your school counselor, to say what I am seeing, you know, I enjoy working with children. And what I'd like to do in the future is study child psychology. That brings a lot to these recommendation letters to indicate to loop back to your interests and your direction. Again, many colleges dare I say most colleges are going to give you a chance to pick from different subject areas. But you do have tendencies, interests, plans, and even though they are the plans for today. And even though I am not president of United States today, it doesn't mean that those dreams and interests didn't reflect for example, my interest in history, my interest in politics, things that I might study in college, so I think you can loop many of those things together. Now, I just want to speak to academic disciplines and recommendations. So I am a former French teacher, I taught French, French, of course, is something that you should all be taking. And it is spoken by point zero to 7% of the world's population. And so I love French. Now, for some reason. Well, okay, I think I know the reason. Almost every student who is selecting teachers to write letters of recommendation asks English teachers, why do they ask English teachers, they believe that English teachers know how to write. Now, let me add to that. French teachers also know how to write now I know what you're thinking that we know how to write in French, but that may translate to being able to write in English as well. Surprisingly, science and math teachers can write as well. social studies teachers can write as well. So as you think forward to who should write on your behalf. There's an old school version of this, which is someone from English and history, someone from math and science to show your quantitative and verbal sides. Okay, that's fine. Or if you loved your physics class, and you loved your calculus class, you could ask those two teachers to write on your behalf. So just be sure that the popular Junior English teacher who is writing 55 letters of recommendation is not the only one you consider, but that you also consider those in other disciplines where you have enjoyed the subjects. Now, let's say you decided you wanted to study English, then it would be every reason to ask for English teacher to write. But I think we're really willing. Okay, even to hear from French teachers. Now, I'm just going to add to that. We'll talk about additional recommendations, I'm sure. But ordinarily, colleges are looking for teachers who've written you in what we have determined. And please, people may argue with me on this as the key subjects, English, social studies, history, math, science and world language. So if a school asks for one teacher recommendation or two, those teachers from those areas are ones that we're looking for to write on the students behalf.


As a student, do I get to read my letters of recommendation?

Peter Van Buskirk 14:53
Great advice. Now, the other thing that I think young people and sometimes their parents are concerned about is Well, we get a chance to see these letters of recommendation that this is important. What if they say things we don't like? I know as well as you that the letters of recommendation come with waivers of access. And there's an opportunity for students to say, Yes, I want to see what you've written. And there is an opportunity for the students to waive that access. And you recommend.

Ann Fleming Brown 15:23
Most schools prefer that you waive the access so that the teachers feel that they can write about you without that sense of you editing the letter. I, in the last decade, have not run across letters that have been inappropriate odd, off the mark. You'll also want to check with your school counselor or your college counselor. In some cases, the college counselor or school counselor reviews the teacher letters, as they go into your file to be uploaded to the common application that varies from school to school a little bit. You also might want to touch base with your school counselor or college counselor to say, here are the teachers that I'm thinking about. Do you think that they're good choices for me, and one reason might be the counselor having had experience with a person writing a very good letter of recommendation and able to support you, or the opposite side of the scale? Every now and then a teacher just uses a template with a search and change and it doesn't have that feeling of being a bit you personally, often counselors are going to have that idea. But that also brings us to the key point. And it's so hard in the college process. I think, Peter, you mentioned before, it's not easy to approach teachers. But it's better to do it sooner. So as you're thinking, perhaps you're coming to the end of your junior year, what a grand time to say, here are the two teachers who are going to write on my behalf. I'm going to ask them in June, as school comes to an end, I'm going to find out if they have a form I need to complete because all of the information about the class is fresh in my mind. You also have that window with teachers then for them to know your work. That's a very recent and fresh. You've given them the summer to prepare the letters. That's all very, very good. Now, I don't know, Peter, there's always that question about whether a student should invite a teacher from the senior fall to write on their behalf.

Peter Van Buskirk 17:53
It's tricky, because that teacher doesn't have an awful lot of experience with the student. What do you recommend? I mean, my sense has always been that it's good to have a teacher from the junior year, possibly the sophomore year. If it is a senior year teacher, then perhaps that is somebody with whom you've had experience earlier in your high school career as well. What are your thoughts?

Ann Fleming Brown 18:14
So many roads to go down. Let me just mention one that is, if you've had a teacher twice in your high school year, because you're interested in that area, or it's happened to occur that way? Wow, that's a bonus. That person has really seen you over time and what a great person to read in your behalf. For the senior year, sometimes the student suddenly finds a particular subject that is absolutely fantastic. Let's say in your senior year, you're able to take environmental science or economics or psychology and those courses have not been available to you before and you simply fly in those classes. Well, then you may want to ask someone to write but you've also got to think about the deadlines for college admissions. Oh my my my, the deadlines for college admissions have become earlier and earlier and earlier. So for some schools, you're going to be asked to apply in August. For some schools, you're going to be asked to apply early action on November 1, which means the teacher has had very little time with you to write in your senior year. And for those who may choose to apply regular decision, granted, the deadlines are generally from January 1 through to the end of January. But the teachers will not even have seen you through a full semester if you're in a semester program. So those junior or sophomore year, teachers can be wiser. I would say if you pick a ninth-grade teacher, I am going to think that maybe you've had no good teaching experiences since the ninth grade. So that I would shy away from.

Peter Van Buskirk 19:57
I think the other thing to remember in terms of the timeline for asking teachers is they're busy, letters of recommendation aside, they're busy. And the teachers who tend to be good teachers will be receiving a lot of requests for letters of recommendation. And if you wait, and wait and wait and wait until August, September to ask that teacher for a letter, you might, she might say, yes, but now your 26th or 27th, in line to get a letter. Whereas if you are for thinking about this and have that conversation in June, you might be first or second in line. And as good as any teacher might be there, it's hard to stay fresh. Once you get into the 25th, 26th, 27th letter.

Ann Fleming Brown 20:41
That's so true. And it's also that time, which we discussed before, when you're closest to the work that you've done in school. And that gets that teacher but you know, memories fade, the teacher may like you and think well of you. But the actual work you've done is going to be much closer to them around the time you ask. I do think asking late or asking on short notice is something you should do only in the most extreme circumstances. And I would definitely go with that. Now. I'm thinking about the case every now and then, where you've had a teacher and you this teachers had a great connection, a relationship with you. And that teacher has retired or moved to a different school, you certainly want to ask them and get an updated email address for them and be sure that they're willing to do that if they're going to be out of the reach of your immediate school community.


Whom to ask for a letter of recommendation

Peter Van Buskirk 21:34
Sure. A question about the expansiveness of letters of recommendation, I'm sure you hear this a lot. Can I ask my yearbook advisor? I haven't had her as an instructor, but but I've spent a lot of time with her with him in the yearbook development, or how about my soccer coach? he teach it I haven't had him as a history teacher, but I've had as a coach, where might those letters fit? If at all?

Ann Fleming Brown 21:58
I just want to travel down one other path, and then I'll come right back to that question. So I am fortunate in my life to have two children. And the older child did not take any of my advice about soliciting letters of recommendation. And she loves world languages. Maybe it's because her mother is a former French teacher. But we're very fortunate in her interest in language and her desire to do language. So at Union College, we asked for one teacher recommendation, that's the requirement, we're very happy to receive two. But our daughter Caroline, sent to the colleges, she applied to five letters of recommendation, each one from a world language teacher, one from French, one from German, one from Russian, one from Latin, and another one from French. And she said to me, all the teachers have asked if they can write on my behalf, I did not want to say no. And I am thinking to myself, two things. thing one, she has asked so many teachers who have taken time to write on her behalf thing to, they are probably sharing her love of language in each letter five times. Thing three, in the admissions world, we have a limited time to read your application folder. And I would rather spend the time with your writing your essay, your extracurricular activities, things we're not talking about in this session, but that personal side of your folder, instead of reading through all five recommendations, so just an alert, that having two teachers right is wonderful. And once you start to get to them more and more and more, you are simply taking the time away from that chance to explore you individually. Now your question was a bit different. If you have someone else who would like to write on your behalf, and I'm going to say someone must be one person. So if it is soccer, if it is your Rabbi or a priest or minister, if it is your theatre director, if it is your volunteer coordinator. All of those opportunities are fantastic, but it's limited to a single recommendation letter. And you would want if I just want to say if your soccer coach writes to me, the director of admissions, I am not going to be able to understand the wonderful skills that your soccer coach has shared. I am not a soccer professional. And those things are so well shared with the coaches at the college rather than with the admissions office. But If you have a job, and you would like your job manager to write on your behalf, that is great. But it's only one single communication. In this case, more is not better.

Peter Van Buskirk 25:16
I remember from my days in admission, there was an adage that floated around that said something like the thicker the file, the more information, the more you had to wonder what what was being covered up. Now, I'm sure your daughter, for example, would not covering anything up. She was just very excited about world languages. But I think students need to be cautious in that regard, not to overdo it. And I'd like your advice. If you have that outside recommend or opportunity, choose one rather than go with with a bunch. We have just a few minutes here, I'd like to, to throw another question at you that relates to the pandemic we've just experienced. Because there are a lot of young people who have been dislocated from the normal learning environment, their lives have been turned inside out upside down for the last 12 to 16 months. And now they're trying to figure out how to deal with letters of recommendation from maybe teachers they've only worked with remotely. And he's special thoughts on on that situation?

Ann Fleming Brown 26:15
Well, first, I'd like to say, we are all together in this experience, you do not need to tell me that your life was disrupted by the pandemic, because in the United States of America, everyone's life has been disrupted by the pandemic. On the other hand, it would be wise to share a bit about your experience. Have you been entirely virtually online? Has this been a good learning experience for you? Have you been hybrid? Have you been in person? Where do you learn best? And what have you learned about your own learning style? Just want to add to that, that so many students, let's say, in the spring term of 2020, spring semester, received pass fail grades. And I had one student write to me this year, very charming. I did my best work ever in the spring term of 2020. And what is sad is that you'll never see it. Because my college, my high school just gave me pass fail grades. So these are things that we really recognize and know. Now I've talked to some students who feel they've done very well in the virtual world. I know many students who prefer to be in person in school, that that's been very important to them. So share a little bit about what you've learned about your own learning style and your own experience. The other thing is to be sure, if you're going to ask a teacher for a recommendation that you're turning on your camera and engaging with that teacher. So think about some of those things as well. It is an unusual time, Peter.

Peter Van Buskirk 28:08
It's well, and it's unusual for the teachers as well, I would not want to be the teacher who's got some students in the classroom and some students remote, all being instructed the same time. So that teacher that you're asking for the letter of recommendation, has been juggling a lot of different balls throughout this whole process as well. And, again, better, I would imagine to give that teacher as much time to process the letter for you as possible. This has been great. There's an awful lot we could be talking about that we haven't even touched on yet about how to use letters of recommendation and other points of advocacy on behalf of yourself in this application. But these are unique times, that doesn't mean that they're impossible times and we all adapt you so well described in your comments. So thank you and for taking some time to give us the picture from inside the reading room. I wish I had known some of this when I was a student I would have talked to my teachers differently would have engaged them in different kinds of letters of recommendation. But good advice. And I'm sure that students who are listening in will will take it to heart and be able to put together stronger applications as a result. So thank you very much.

Ann Fleming Brown 29:17
May I add one more thing? Certainly. Don't forget to thank the teachers and don't forget to go back and tell them what your college choices are and how their letters of recommendation worked toward that goal.

Peter Van Buskirk 29:31
They'll be very proud. Very, very proud. Thank you again. Have a great day everyone. I look forward to the next conversation you can have about the college admission process.

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