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Ask the Experts: Letters of Recommendation and College Interviews

By Peterson's Staff updated on Sunday, January 27, 2013

Question I'm asking some teachers for letters of recommendation. Should I give them the list of schools I'm applying to? If yes, should I ask them to mention different schools in different letters? - Tim

AnswerAlmost all teachers who are asked to write letters of recommendation for students will take this responsibility seriously. You should make the task as easy for them as possible by, for example, giving them all the teacher recommendation forms at one time, addressing envelopes to all the colleges to which you want the recommendation sent, and putting a stamp on them as well. Check the Common Application on line (commonapp.org) to see if any of your college choices are listed. If so, you can give the teachers photo or printed out copies of the teacher recommendation form to complete. This will cut their work considerably by allowing them to use the same recommendation for those colleges. There is no reason for the teachers to mention other colleges by name in their recommendation. If the teacher can refer specifically to a particular college being an excellent match for you, that would be helpful.

 

Question How important are the teacher/counselor recommendations? Would it actually impact admissions in a negative way if somebody was described as "very quiet, doesn't really engage in class discussions but does well on tests"? ... or if somebody was described as having "a brilliant mind that is always quick to question and analyze things"? It's obvious that the latter is better, but just how much of a positive or negative impact would that make? Could it be the deciding factor? thank you very much! - El

AnswerGood question: as you probably suspect, the recommendations can matter a great deal. Courses, grades, and standardized tests are the big three components of most college admissions decisions. Then there is a set of secondary factors that colleges take into account in order to put together a more complete picture of you as an applicant. Among those factors are your essays, extracurricular activities and work experience, possibly an interview, and, yes, teacher and counselor recommendations. In many cases where students do not know their counselor well, the teacher recommendations are more important. And, at smaller to middle size colleges and universities, which have more wherewithal to conduct a thorough/holistic review of you as an applicant, the recommendations will matter more.

Typically, recommendations will confirm what else is in your application. Sometimes a very strong or personalized recommendation can help reveal particularly interesting or important traits or experiences, including reasons why you might not have done too well in this or that class or in a particular semester (you were sick, you have a disability, your parents divorced, you just moved to town, and so on). A negative recommendation can sour an admissions reviewer's estimation of you as a person and how you would interact with your college community.

 

Question If a student is visiting a college campus of their interest, do you believe it is wise and leaves a good impression if he or she sets up/initiates meetings with the admission office? (not the type of meetings that occur after you are accepted, but rather the type in which to better become acquainted with each other and see what the college thinks of you - basically an interview) What type of colleges actually expect a face-to-face meeting from their applicants before they admit them? - Joseph

AnswerIf a college offers an on-campus interview, then you should take advantage of it during your visiting process. This will allow you to ask questions and present your main interests and goals. Interviews no longer have a huge impact on admissions in most schools, and many colleges do not offer interviews, or offer only alumni interviews in your home area once you have submitted your application. Some students also find it helpful to meet on campus with a professor, coach or instructor, such as a music director, pre-med program coordinator, or faculty in a key area of interest. You can usually set up these meetings by e-mail in advance of your visits.

 

Question Do admission literally read all recommendation letters verbatim? - Tian you

 

AnswerYou should expect that they do, and we believe that they do. Next to curriculum, grades, and test scores, a small cluster of variables has the next largest impact on your admission decision. Your writing is key. Sometimes an interview can play a role, but increasingly less so. Recommendations, from teachers and your guidance counselor, offer a critical, independent view of you from folks who presumably have known you for a while and can offer perspective on how you operate in your school community. Most recommendation letters serve to confirm what else admissions readers are picking up in the rest of your application. However, a very strong recommendation or two can help you and play a tipping role in your favor. Similarly, a very bad set of comments can work against you. One off-key remark in an otherwise strong application is unlikely to be your undoing. But consistent and very negative comments can do harm.

 

Question Could you briefly explain how students should go about requesting and sending letters of recommendation? Do teachers send the letter to colleges themselves? Subsequently, should we view the letter first? Or do we give the teachers a list of colleges? Is it acceptable for teachers to send out multiple copies of the same letter? When should we have teachers send in letters of rec? Are they included with our application, or separate? I guess I am a bit confused about the entire topic. - CJ

AnswerYou're not alone in being confused. That's because there is no standardized recommendation process (though we can recommend some generally good approaches). Some schools prefer that teachers submit recommendations to the guidance office, which will send the two teacher recs along with the guidance rec (aka school report) and transcript (and school profile) to the colleges. Other schools expect teachers to send recs directly to colleges. You should check with your school's guidance office for their preferred plan of action.

Students should ask two junior or senior year teachers, in different subject areas, and usually in core academic subjects, for recommendations as early as possibly in senior fall, if not at the end of junior spring. Students can help teachers by meeting or talking with them, and giving them a resume or activities list that gives the teacher more background on the student's goals, interests, activities, academic focus, and college plans.

Generally, students do not see teacher or guidance recommendations. They sign a waiver which gives teachers the opportunity to write candidly. This builds a bond of trust between student and teacher. Typically, a teacher will not agree (or offer, in some cases) to write a recommendation unless he or she feels she can be supportive of a student. Teachers fill out one recommendation form (typically the one that goes along with the Common Application) and then photocopy it, or give to the guidance office which then does so. There is no problem with this, and colleges expect it. Alternately, if there is a special connection between a teacher and a college to which a student is applying, he or she might write a more personalized and specific version of the rec for that college. This would apply, for example, if the teacher is a graduate of that college.  

Teachers who do not give the rec to guidance should be furnished a stamped addressed envelope that will go directly to the colleges, independent of a student's application. Do these sometimes get lost or delayed? Yes. Students should follow up with colleges to make sure that their applications are "complete," especially if they do not receive an e-mail or postcard informing them of this.

 

Question I go to a school of more than 2000 students and there is only one counselor responsible my grade; my counselor doesn't even recognize me due to the size. I'm worried that he won't know me well enough to give me strong and detailed recommendation. Would colleges take into the account that sometimes counselors just can't possibly know everyone very well? - Penny

AnswerThe issue of too few guidance counselors for too many students is a problem for many college-bound students these days. We share your concern regarding how to gain support for your applications to the colleges. The best solution is to ask two or three of your teachers in academic courses from 11th and 12th grades to write letters of support. This is vital information to the admissions committees and will take care of the problem of the counselor. If your college choices are on the Common Application you can give the teacher recommendation form to your teachers to complete.

 

Question What do you need to bring to a college interview? - Barry

 

AnswerThis is a very good question. Our immediate response is this: bring as much knowledge of the college as you can master before the interview. By studying their catalogue, view book, and Web site you can gain a very good picture of the requirements for applying, the different academic requirements to graduate, the fields of study and extracurricular activities offered, the costs to attend, and financial aid availability and how to apply for this. The best interviews are those in which a student is prepared to ask questions off of the information they have accumulated. This indicates to the interviewer that you are seriously interested in the institution and that you have done your homework. 

You can also assist the interviewer by bringing a brief resume that describes your academic performance, test score to date, and activities. This can allow the interviewer to focus on some of the major interests and activities in which you are engaged. This may seem superficial, but bring a nice outfit! Dress comfortably but somewhat more formally to show your seriousness and respect for the interview process. And here is a really important fact: students who are more properly dressed look cooler and more mature than the intentionally dressed down teenager.

 

Question One of the colleges I am looking to apply to does not mention sending a letter of recommendation on their website. Do you suggest sending one or not? If so who should I ask to write the letter and how many do I need? Thank you! - Ellen

 

AnswerMany colleges do not require recommendations or do not state explicitly that you can send one or more. However, this does not mean that the admissions officers would not be helped in evaluating your qualifications and appropriateness for their college. You could send two teacher recommendations in courses that you have this senior year or had in your junior year. If you have work experience, you can ask your employer to write also. Copies of one letter could be sent to all of your colleges.

 

Question i would like to know what questions to ask the interviewer after a college interview. Counselors said it would be best if questions are asked. - joan

 

AnswerYou should ask questions of your college interviewer, who will often give you that opportunity at some point during your conversation. Before your interviews, come up with three "statement-questions" related to your interests. One should be academic, the other two can relate to personal interests or activities. Make a statement about the interest, your involvement in it, why you're excited about it, and so on, and then pose a "tell me more about it" question off of your statement, asking the interviewer to tell you more about this area of interest as it relates to this particular college.

If you can, in your statement, demonstrate that you have already done some research on the college (hint, hint) and know about a couple of related programs, majors, classes, opportunities, etc., which will help you show seriousness and preparation. This is not just to prove something to the interviewer or make up meaningless conversation, by the way. The point is to learn things about each college which relate to your real interests and preferences, thereby helping you to differentiate the schools in order make the right college decisions for yourself.

 

Question As I'm entering the spring of 11th grade, I'm starting to think about college recommendations. I know it's important to choose wisely, and I want to figure things out this spring so I can go ahead and ask teachers before the "rush" in fall. However, I'm having a bit of trouble deciding who to ask. I know I want a recommendation from my computer science teacher, because that's an area I'm interested in studying wherever I end up, and because her recommendation will definitely be a strong one. However, for those colleges which want one counselor and two teacher recommendations, I'm having trouble deciding which teacher to ask in addition to Mrs. L.

One option is my choir director. She sees me a lot, which I guess is important, and I'm fairly sure she'd give me a very positive recommendation. However, despite our constant exposure to each other, she's a very busy, often distracted woman, and I honestly don't feel like she knows me as well as many of my other teachers.

My other option is my AP English III teacher. She, too, would write a good recommendation, probably more positive than my choir director's. I have an A in English, which is a huge feat in her class -- there were only 2 of us in my class last semester who pulled that off. She has obviously had a chance to observe my academic skills that my choir director has not, and I'm about 99% sure that her recommendation will be a better one, but will it look bad if I choose her over someone who should, supposedly, know me better? - Lydia

AnswerYou should ask your computer science and English teachers to serve as your two "core" academic teacher recommendation writers. Then, ask your choir teacher for an additional, more personal letter of reference. This can either be sent by you or her directly to colleges, or could go in your high school's guidance office packet along with the counselor recommendation. Colleges prefer two academic teacher references, and an activity like art, music, volunteering, or athletics can often serve as the source of a good additional character/activity reference.

 

Question How much influence does a school interview really have on getting you in? - Jason

 

AnswerOnce upon a time in college admissions, the personal interview was a very important factor in admissions consideration. In fact most selective colleges used to make an interview mandatory. This is not the case today because of two factors: far too many students apply today, making it impossible to interview every one of them; and it can penalize many candidates who cannot afford to travel to many campuses in order to interview.

This being said, if you feel you are comfortable and enjoy meeting with people and articulating your interests and accomplishments, you should try to get interviews on campus or with an alumni interviewer in your home area. Having made the effort to interview for those colleges of serious interest to you will reinforce the degree of your interest. The interview is far from the most significant factor in determining whom to admit. It generally serves as a reinforcement of the interests and accomplishments that you will describe in your formal application.

 

Question Will the admissions officer who you meet with have read your essay or transcript? How much will they know about you? - susan

 

AnswerIt depends on the timing of your interview, and whether it's on campus or with alumni, but usually your interviewer will not have too much information about you. Sometimes you will fill out a form when you get to the admissions office that gives the interviewer some basic facts about you. In the case of an alumni interview conducted after you have submitted your application, some colleges provide the interviewers with a fact sheet noting your high school, test scores, grades, and some other pertinent facts.

We recommend that students prepare a good resume noting academics and activities early on in the college admissions process. You can bring that resume with you to interviews, information sessions, or meetings with college representatives who visit your school. Your resume shows seriousness of purpose, preparation, and interest in the college. It also gives the interviewer something to go off of during the interview, making it more likely that he or she will ask you questions based on your interests rather than surprise questions on unfamiliar topics. You can also refer to the resume in the interview when making a "statement question" designed to elicit more information about the college.

 

Question Aren't the things that you will be asked to discuss in your interview already on your application? Are you expected to highlight completely different parts of yourself that you haven't yet talked about in your application? - Jason

AnswerYou are correct in general in that much if not all of the discussion points that come up in an interview will be included in your completed application and accompanying school transcript. The purpose of a personal interview is to delve into some of the topics in greater detail. An experienced interviewer will focus on some of the activities or fields of interest you have noted in your application and explore the depth and range of your interest. Your level of enthusiasm and engagement in some areas you mention will be explored. Your role in an interview is to ask questions about the institution that you want more in depth information about. A useful and productive strategy is to choose several topics of major personal interest, state to the interviewer your involvement in these areas first, and then follow with a question of the opportunities and quality of these areas at the college. A good interview is a two way conversation and your questions are a key part of this dialogue.

 

Question My mom told me that I should be writing thank you letters and stuff after I have an interview, kinda like a job interview. Does this apply? Are there other things I can do? - cait

 

AnswerYour mom is right. Send a brief personal note or e-mail to your interviewer, saying thanks for your time, and also noting any particular things you remember from the interview which you discussed. You can answer a question posed to you that you needed to reflect on, note whether you plan to apply and your level of interest in the college, and say that you look forward to talking with them again another time.

Good communication on a personal level can be an important part of your admissions process. You can learn a lot, and develop relationships that will not just help you gain admission, but also decide if colleges are a good fit for you. You can write letters to supplement all of your applications to the colleges in January/February of senior year to bring them up to date on your academics and activities, and consider things like contacting faculty on campus in your areas of interest or spending the night at a college and sitting in on classes.

 

Question Apart from obvious qualities like english fluency and good grades; what are the qualities that would be greatly sought for and/or appreciated in the Interviews? - Nitin

 

AnswerWe are major fans of the personal interview by experienced, trained admissions officers because of the valuable opportunity a person-to-person meeting provides to accomplish the following: to demonstrate the ability to express your ideas and passionate interests, to show a level of social maturity and interactive social skills, to display your energy level and interest in learning and contributing to a community, and to emphasize major accomplishments and their relationship to successful college studies. Unfortunately the majority of colleges and universities today do not interview. You should be proactive in requesting a personal interview with an admissions officer on campus or an official representative in your home area.

 

Question How can I find out if a school gives interviews? Do all schools require interviews for all prospective students? - sarah

 

AnswerAlways follow the lead of the particular college. A majority of colleges today state in their literature (print and Web site) that an interview is A. optional, B. not given on campus, C. strongly encouraged, D. required, E. only granted for special categories such as recruited athletes, minorities, alumni children,  or F. available with alumni schools committee representatives.

As a general rule of thumb, it is the category of smaller, private colleges that either strongly recommend or require interviews. If you are applying to a particular college or university for a special scholarship or to a special department such as performing arts, you may be required to interview. Be certain to check on this for each college you are considering.

 

Question If I am really interested in the engineering program at Lehigh, can I request to be interviewed by someone in that department? - Jason

 

AnswerYou will have to go through the standard application and interview process at Lehigh, but you can request to talk with a faculty member in engineering about their program and your fit for it. You might begin by asking the admissions office for a suggestion on whom to talk with. You can also check the college's Web site, going through the section on academic programs and finding the engineering faculty listings. You can e-mail the chair of the undergraduate department and ask to talk or meet with him/her. Faculty are often very willing to talk with interested students and explain their programs.

 

Question I have a hearing problem and always sit in the front of my high school classes. I don't plan on mentioning this on my college applications because I refuse to consider myself "disabled." Should I bring it up during my interviews? - Michael

AnswerAdmissions people are always impressed with students who have some physical issue that they have overcome or compensated for in their own way, and have done well in their school work. If you were to raise this issue in an interview or on your application, we believe you will help your candidacy. It is only when individuals use a disability as an excuse for not performing well that a negative reaction is formed. We have counseled many, many students who have some kind of physical challenge that has played a factor in the development of their personality, their value system, their determination to succeed, and their general adaptability. If these traits are all positive, then admissions committees will be swayed towards admitting you.

 

Question If the interview is informational only should you attend? - Chris

 

AnswerThe majority of colleges and universities now do informational interviews both on campus and at individual high schools or at central meeting forums. If it is a college that holds potential interest to you, you should attend. The presenters are usually members of the professional admissions staff and are prepared to share a good deal of helpful information about their college and, sometimes special insights about the application and admissions process that can be helpful to you. Your attendance will be noted down and added to your file if you decide to apply. You may also have an opportunity to talk with the admissions representative one on one.

 

Question I didn't do well on my SAT's but have a solid A-/B+ average in all of my classes and I REALLY want to go to BU. Should I try to explain to the interviewer that I am not a good test taker or not bring it up and only accentuate the positive? - jonathan

AnswerWe like the last phrase in your question. Always accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative. In any interview situation, whether it is with an admissions officer or an alumni representative, keep the conversation on your strong academic performance, your particular interests and activities in and out of school, and what features of the college especially appeal to you. Contrary to the general myths in the public marketplace, interviewers are not likely to ask about testing. They know this information will be available in your file if and when you apply. They want the interview to be an opportunity to learn what you as a person are all about.

By the way, do not ever use the phrase "I am a poor tester" on your application or in any communication with admissions officers. They will judge your qualifications far more on the basis of your academic performance. Also, they do not know how to interpret this statement. If you are a poor tester is it because you have a learning disability or English is your second language, as examples? If you have a specific causal factor then mention it but don't point out that you are a poor tester.

 

Question When is the earliest you can go on an interview? I am very interested in Georgetown, but, am currently a Junior. Is it too early to set up an interview? - susan

 

AnswerMost colleges will not grant on-campus interviews until the late spring of your junior year, and will offer interviews between June and November on campus, sometimes later into senior year. Alumni interviews, which are the only ones offered by Georgetown, are not granted until senior fall, after a student submits at least the first part of the application, or the whole application. The admissions office then notifies the local alumni responsible for interviews in your area. You certainly can visit colleges prior to June of your junior year, and meet with faculty or other college representatives in key areas of interest to you — sports, music, arts, language study, and so forth.

 

Question What if a school does not grant interviews? Are there other things I can do (besides my application) for a school to get to know me? - susan

 

AnswerThis is a key issue today in applying to colleges, since most colleges do not use the interview in the actual admissions deliberations. Instead, the committees will look very, very carefully at the following items to learn more about you as a person:

1. Your personal application and all the information you provide about your interests, activities, and future fields of study. The personal essay should be viewed less as an obstacle in your entrance way and more as an opportunity to inform the committee about yourself. What you have to say and how well you can say it will create a vital impression. Take this process seriously and tell them all that you would have described in a personal meeting in your application.

2. Supplement your application with examples of your special talents and activities. This can be a portfolio of your art work, a resume of your community service involvement, a resume of your athletic prowess with pictures or a tape, a sampling of your writing for the school paper or literary magazine or creative writing.

3. Gather personal recommendations from individuals who know you well as teachers, coaches, mentors, employers.

All of this input will carry far greater weight in the admissions deliberations.

 

Question What are the differences between an alumni interview and an on-campus interview? Does one hold more weight? - sarah

 

AnswerSome colleges offer both alumni and on-campus interviews, while others offer neither. A number of selective colleges, such as Tufts, Vanderbilt, Georgetown, and Penn offer solely alumni interviews, on which they place some weight in the admissions process. Colleges like Dartmouth which offer both alumni and on-campus interviews suggest that the two are really interchangeable, and that they want students to take advantage of one of the interview opportunities.

Alumni interviews are typically conducted by volunteer interviewers responsible for a local region of the country, or an international locale. These interviewers often work in groups, dividing up applicants in their area once they are notified by the college of students who have applied. Alumni interviewers, like on-campus interviewers, will often fill out a summary interview form, sometimes with specific numerical ratings of various applicant qualities (intellectual curiosity, personal strengths, knowledge of the college, etc.), and admissions readers will take the summary notes into account when reading an applicant's file.

Alumni interviews don't carry a lot of weight in the admissions process, and neither do most on-campus interviews, but they can help you to indicate your level of interest, to highlight key strengths that might be missed in the written application, and to help you find out about a college through talking with a graduate.

 

Question How much does an interview help you for getting into a school? - Julie

 

AnswerThese days, many colleges and universities do not put much weight on the interview as a factor in the admissions process. It is far less important than courses, grades, standardized tests, and teacher recommendations, for example. In fact, many schools do not offer any opportunity for a one-on-one, personal interview on campus or with alumni. Some offer both, and some offer the alumni interview in lieu of the on-campus version, which may be a meeting with an admission officer or student.

Though many interviews, when they are offered, are listed as "informational," rather than "evaluatory," we still recommend taking advantage of interviews whenever you are able. There are three main reasons for this. First, an interview might help you decide if a college is right for you. Through your personally-oriented questions and discussions, you can go beyond a regular tour (with a sometimes mismatched tour guide for your interests) and assess the fit with a college with (hopefully) a better informed and trained person. Second, the interview might help you present a more personally focused application. You might be able to go beyond the numbers elements of your application and connect personally with an interviewer, as well as discuss some issues you might have trouble relating in writing.

Finally, the interview, combined with the campus visit, letter writing, and attention to the details of an application or supplement for a college, can help to establish "demonstrated interest" in a college. This is a new buzzword reflecting the increasing use of this subjective factor in making admissions decisions, particularly on the part of smaller, more selective, private colleges and universities, precisely those most likely to offer you an opportunity to interview.

About the Author

Peterson's has more than 40 years of experience in higher education, and the expert staff members here are all ready to leverage their considerable knowledge and experience to help you succeed on your educational journey. We have the information, the know-how, and the tools -- now all we need is you!

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