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Writing Recommendations

A Guide To Writing Evaluations for MIT

Because of our highly competitive applicant pool, letters of recommendation hold substantial weight in our admissions decisions. A well-written letter for an outstanding applicant can highlight impressive characteristics beyond his/her own self-advocacy. We are looking for people who have and will make an impact - the difference between a letter that supports and a letter that raves about a special student.

Both guidance counselor and teacher evaluations are most helpful when they are specific and storied. They should provide us with the information and impressions we cannot glean from the rest of the application. Try to give a complete sketch of the student and the context of his/her accomplishments. Support your conclusions with facts and anecdotes whenever possible. A story or incident that conveys the character or merit of the individual is more telling than a mere statement like "Mary is mature."

Try to address the following questions in your evaluation:

  • What is the context of your relationship with the applicant? If you do not know the applicant well and are only able to write a brief summary, please acknowledge this.
  • Has the student demonstrated a willingness to take intellectual risks and go beyond the normal classroom experience?
  • Does the applicant have any unusual competence, talent or leadership abilities?
  • What motivates this person? What excites him/her?
  • How does the applicant interact with teachers? With peers? Describe his/her personality and social skills.
  • What will you remember most about this person?
  • If you have knowledge of MIT, what leads you to believe MIT is a good match for this person? How might he/she fit into the MIT community and grow from the MIT experience?
  • Has the applicant ever experienced disappointment or failure? If so, how did he/she react?
  • Are there any unusual family or community circumstances of which we should be aware?

Finally, please pay special attention to the opening and closing of your evaluation. Remember, we are reading over 18,000 applications and we appreciate strong statements that we'll remember as we evaluate each candidate. With that said, please write in a way that makes you feel comfortable and do not shy away from giving us your honest impressions. We are only looking for glowing superlatives if they are backed up with examples and give us context; what is behind a student's achievements. Above all else, make sure to go beyond a student's grades and academic performance. We can get this information from other parts of the application.

Examples Letters of Recommendation and Critiques

Teacher Recommendation for David:
It is a great pleasure for me to recommend David for admission to MIT. He is one of the most extraordinary students I have encountered in 20 years of teaching. I taught David A.P. Calculus last year as a tenth grader, and he was one of the very top students in an extremely able group of mostly seniors. He has a high aptitude for math and was very much involved in his work, applying himself with persistence and dedication and often going beyond the regular class assignments.
 
David's abiding interest, however, is computer science. He has developed a series of "strands" for use in providing computerized drill and review in the basic skills and techniques of algebra and arithmetic, and has recently adapted these to other subjects. David's work in this area has been so original and significant that he has published a paper on it and delivered several lectures to professionals in other parts of the country. This is a phenomenal accomplishment for anyone, especially a young man in rural Arkansas. It is also worth noting that both last year and this year David taught computer programming to a tenth grade class of mine for two weeks. He took over completely, preparing lectures, assignments, and tests with great care and thought. His lectures were clear and well organized, and it was obvious that he had expended a great deal of effort to make the course the success that it was.
 
David's personal qualities are as impressive as his intellectual accomplishments. An extremely kind, sensitive and sensible boy, he has had a difficult family situation for a few years now. He provides emotional support to his mother through her battle with cancer without allowing the situation to undermine his own stability and accomplishments. He has exhausted all that we have to offer him in this small community, and the maturity that he has demonstrated leads me to believe him capable of entering college a year early, as he now plans to do. I sincerely hope that you will be able to offer him a place in MIT's freshman class.

 

Critique: Excellent! This recommendation is filled with comments from someone who clearly knows this student well. We get a clear sense for not only David's intellectual capacities, but also emotional maturity. His genuine love for computer programming comes through in this teacher's description. We also realize that he is pushing academic boundaries in his community and making opportunities for himself - a trait that is especially important for a candidate seeking college admissions a year early.

 

Teacher Recommendation for Jen:

 

Jen was a student in one of my predominately senior physics classes. She took physics her junior year in high school and was a good student. Through hard work she was able to develop a good understanding of the subject material.
 
Jen also had personal qualities that are commendable. In the two years that I have known her I have never known her to be dishonest or untrustworthy. Once on an exam paper I had made a grading error in her favor. She brought this to my attention even though it resulted in a lower test grade.
 
In conclusion, I feel that Jen has both the academic and personal qualities to be a credit to the college of her choice, and I give her my recommendation without reservation.

 

Critique: We receive thousands of recommendations like this each year. It is all positive, but it doesn't give any real depth to the candidate. In this instance, the reader is left feeling the writer is reaching for something to say. Honesty and trustworthiness are certainly admirable traits, but they are not uncommon among the nation's top college applicants. We are looking for a compelling reason to admit someone, so information on class material does not help the candidate. Although Jen may be a hard worker, most of our applicants are. Although the comments are positive, it is difficult to grasp onto anything tangible to make this candidate's case stronger. Was this faint praise intentional? How does Jen fare in comparison with other (more outstanding?) candidates at the school?

Guidance Counselor Recommendation for Mary:
Mary has contributed to the school community in a variety of ways, most notably through her participation on the newspaper and yearbook staffs. Frankly, I am impressed with her aggressiveness, creativity, determination and ability to schedule extracurricular activities around a full academic workload. I have never heard Mary complain about her workload or refuse any assignment that she has been given. It is not adequate to say that she accepts responsibility readily. She seeks responsibility. Oh, for more such students!
 
As business manager for the paper and co-editor of the yearbook the past two years, Mary has done an outstanding job. She personally brought the town's business community from the view that the school newspaper was a charitable organization to the realization that the paper is a direct pipeline through which advertisers can reach students. She also took the initiative to set up the advertising rate schedule for the paper that produced enough revenue to expand coverage from a four-page paper, so that it is an eight-page and often twelve-page paper. Her work as photographer for both publications has been equally outstanding.
 
Her motivation is not forced upon her, nor does she wear it like a badge. She has tremendous self-discipline. Mary is also a dedicated, versatile and talented student who will be an asset to your undergraduate community. She has my respect and my highest recommendation.

 

Critique: Good. Lots of specifics here give us a very clear impression and help us to know why that impression is held. We have evidence of her newspaper directives and overall character.

Guidance Counselor Recommendation for Jane:
Jane is an outstanding young woman whose academic record may not fully reflect her ability. Her parents were divorced during her junior year, and, for several years before that, her home situation had been in turmoil with a great deal of fighting between her parents. Her father has an alcohol problem and Jane certainly endured a great deal of emotional distress. The fact that she has been able to do as well as she has done given the circumstances says a lot for her. Now that the home situation has stabilized, her performance has improved. I believe her senior year grades are a much better reflection of her ability.

 

Critique: You may wonder whether or not the above information is appropriate in a letter of evaluation. It is! We appreciate anything that gives us insight and perspective into a student's performance and environment. Comments about problems that a student has experienced will help us understand the context in which they have accomplished whatever they have achieved. The extent to which they have dealt with these problems is useful to know as well.

Guidance Counselor Recommendation for Mike:
I do not really know Mike very well. He has come to me for routine matters, but generally has not had any problems that he has discussed with me. In this large school, I do not always have the time to personally get to know each of my advisees. From the comments I get from Mike's teachers, I have the impression that he is one of the strongest students this school has seen.

 

Critique: We do not learn very much from this report, but we understand why. The counselor is very honest and we are not left guessing as to the reason there is not more information and will turn our attention to other parts of the application.

Teacher recommendation for Brian:
Brian was in the top five in my class consistently. He is certainly motivated to study. His character and personality are admirable. Brian is an excellent student, hard worker and has above average reasoning ability.

 

Critique: This is an example of an evaluation in which we really don't know what the writer is trying to tell us. The comments provided certainly do not give much substantive information. We are left wondering whether there is just not much to say about this student or whether the teacher just didn't bother to put much effort into the recommendation. This is a situation where we will probably form our impressions based on the pattern of all the recommendations. If all are equally uninformative, we will assume there wasn't much to say, but if the others are better, we will assume this teacher did not give much effort to the recommendation.

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