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Complete Guide to Harvard Recommendation Letters

Posted by Rebecca Safier | Aug 17, 2015 2:00:00 PM

Letters of Recommendation

 

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Are you applying to Harvard, or writing a letter of recommendation for someone who is? To get into Harvard or another Ivy League school, your letter of recommendation, like with all the other parts of your application, must be outstanding. Even if your grades, test scores, and other achievements are stellar, you don't want to downplay the importance of recommendation letters in the admissions decision.

Read on to find out just how important rec letters are to the Harvard admissions committee, along with how exactly they can provide powerful support for an applicant.

 

How Important Are Recommendation Letters in Harvard Admissions?

To answer this question, let's go straight to the dean himself. Dean of admissions and financial aid, William R. Fitzsimmons, says, "Recommendation from secondary school teachers and counselors are extremely important at Harvard." Admissions committees read the recommendations "with great care, often commenting on them in writing on 'read sheets' in each application."

If that doesn't give you a sense of how much attention is paid to reference letters, consider this: they often project the recommendations onto large screens so all members of the admissions committee can read them at once, both when they meet in smaller groups and all together for final review processes in February and March.

With all eyes literally on your recommendations, they are looking intently at what it has to say. Why?

 

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Getting ready* to read your rec letter...no pressure!
*(Not an actual representation of what it's like at all.)

 

What's the Purpose of Letters of Recommendation?

To consult the dean again, Fitzsimmons says, "Recommendations can help us to see well beyond test scores and grades and other credentials and can illuminate such personal qualities as character and leadership, as well as intellectual curiosity, creativity, and love of learning." Additionally, recommendation letters "offer evidence of an applicant's potential to make a significant difference to a college community and beyond."

As discussed in Allen Cheng's detailed guide to getting into Harvard, Harvard wants candidates who are going to achieve great things at college and beyond. In this way, they are creating value in the world as a top university. Framed in this way, Fitzsimmons' last comment about a student's "potential to make a significant difference" is a very important one. Recommendation letters should express confidence in, and, in a way, serve as proof that a student's past achievements and personal qualities predict her future success, both in the "college community and beyond."

Apart from that, the recommendation letters present a full, holistic picture of an applicant. While a student's transcript, test scores, involvements, and personal essay speak to her achievements and goals, the recommendation letter both complements and adds to the application. They add dimension to who a student is, her intellectual, personal, and social qualities, and how she expresses herself with others. 

Harvard is an extremely competitive and selective school, and they are looking for a diverse and dynamic class of top achievers who are going to work well with one another and their professors. Recommendation letters attest to a student's merits, speak to her ability to thrive in an academically rigorous environment, and share a vision of her future accomplishments. Considering letters of recommendation must be outstanding and powerful documents on a student's behalf, who should write them?

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Make sure your recommender is happy to recommend you, like these people.

 

Who Should Write Your Letters of Recommendation for Harvard?

Harvard requires two letters of recommendation from teachers and one from your school counselor. You probably don't have much choice with the counselor recommendation, since most students have the same counselor throughout their four years of high school. What you can control is trying to connect with your counselor, getting to know her, and sharing important information that she needs to write you a strong recommendation.

Where you have an important decision to make is with the teacher recommendations. Who should you ask? Who's going to write you the best recommendation letter that will most impress Harvard admissions officers?

First, I would suggest asking someone who knows you well. The best letters are personal, insightful, and reveal something about your character. Someone who barely knows you won't be able to accomplish that or write about you in a meaningful way. 

Apart from who you know well, you should choose someone in whose class you excelled (like, really excelled. This is the H, people!). Beyond impressive grades and test scores, did you go above and beyond to take on an independent project or research an area of interest? Did you join your teacher's after school club and show your interest in physics or writing outside of the classroom? If you demonstrated subject mastery, outstanding participation, or extra involvement in teacher's class, then she can speak about your exceptional efforts and achievement in her Harvard rec letter.

If you're highlighting your passion for medical research, writing, or math in your application, then you should ask a teacher in that subject who can give evidence of your talent and passion. If you're not focusing on a particular academic field, then you should still ask teachers from core classes.

Junior year teachers are generally best, as they had you recently and for a whole year. If the teacher had you for more than one class, all the better. Just as long as they can write deeply about who you are and what you'd bring to Harvard. It also doesn't hurt if they think you're the best thing since sliced bread. Again, this is the H!

So what content is included in an exceptional recommendation letter? Besides choosing your recommenders wisely, is there anything else you can do to ensure the high quality of your letter?

 

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What Makes a Great Letter of Recommendation for Harvard?

As Fitzsimmons said, a great letter doesn't just list data or repeat a student's resume. It provides a mutli-dimensional view of the applicant, including her academic skills, impressive personal qualities, and potential for future success. For Harvard, the best letters are customized both to the student and the school. Your recommender should understand Harvard's academic demands and attest to your capacity to thrive there.

So how exactly can a recommendation letter accomplish all this? What do the most memorable letters say and do?

 

They Use Anecdotes

The best recommendation letters describe an observation, story, or example that illustrates something meaningful about who you are, what you value, and what motivates you to act. Stories back up what the recommender is saying about you. They also help to differentiate you from other students with similar credentials (a lot of qualified students applying to Harvard), and stick out as memorable in readers' minds. Finally, stories prove that your recommender knows you on a personal level and is therefore qualified to assess you.

Consider the difference in these two sentences.

 

Caitlin is a motivated student.

When two of our writers were out sick on the day of their deadlines, editor-in-chief Caitlin sprang into action, delegating articles to other writers and staying up well into the night writing any missing content herself. Under her determined leadership, the school paper was ready for print by morning. 

 

The story proves her motivation and determination, as well as paints a picture of a driven Caitlin writing stories late into the night. Maybe she'll do the same for The Harvard Crimson once on campus. In addition to making the student come alive for readers, stories make the letter overall more interesting, personal, and lively. That's something that admissions officers will remember.

They'll know that the student had motivated teachers and counselors on her side to spend time crafting a strong and insightful letter. The best letters also speak to a student's singular commitment or passion, a quality that impresses admissions officers and points to future achievement.

 

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"Katniss shows an unmatched commitment to archery and leading revolutions."

 

They Highlight a Specific Commitment or Unusual Skill

Harvard isn't necessarily looking for well-rounded students. Their overall class can be well-rounded, by including students with deep achievement in specific areas, like designing apps, publishing creative writing, or winning national math competitions. If this sounds like you, then you've surely told this story in the rest of your application.

Your recommendation can complement this story, while adding new anecdotes and observations about you from your recommender's perspective. Maybe you've done scientific research at a local college, had your poetry published in literary magazines, or composed and performed songs for school concerts. Your recommenders can speak to how you contribute excellence to your school community and will continue to inspire and collaborate with people at Harvard. 

Besides corroborating and adding to your "spikes" in achievement, your recommender can rave about you with a statement of high ranking.

 

They Give an Outstanding Ranking

If your recommender considers you one of the top students she's ever had, then this statement could go a long way, as Harvard is looking for the best of the best. Saying you're "one of the top, most insightful, most creative, most talented students" she's ever taught is a remarkable statement, especially if she's taught at the school for many years.

On the other hand, a lukewarm statement, like calling you "well above average," could be a red flag to admissions officers. Elitist as it may sound, Harvard isn't looking for average. They expect exceptional. 

 

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Especially if they contain the letters J, Q, or Z. Or is that Scrabble points?

 

They Use Powerful Language

Besides giving a powerful ranking, the best letters are well-crafted and use impactful language. They show that your recommender took time to provide a thoughtul and well-written letter. Your letters aren't being graded, of course, but to serve their purpose they must make an impression.

Weak or generic words, like a subpar ranking, could suggest mediocrity. In choosing your recommender, you may ask your counselor for advice or keep an ear to the ground for who writes good letters. A short or cliche letter definitely won't fly with the Harvard admissions committee. 

Check out these two examples:

 

Sara is a great student. She is motivated and a hard worker. Sara goes above and beyond and always shoots for the stars.

Sara has continuously impressed me with her innovative and creative approach to problem-solving. When she joined our school's Robotics Club in freshman year, she introduced the other students and myself to a type of programming that took our creations to the next level and resulted in our first place prize at the state competition.

 

The second example uses more specific, powerful wording to describe specifically what's so impressive about Sara. Plus, it uses an example to prove its point. The first, well, uses the phrase "shoots for the stars." Yikes.

 

They Are Organized

Finally, the most impressive letters are well organized. They include all the pertinent information, like how the recommender knows the student and what makes her qualified to assess the student. In their introduction, they give an enthusiastic endorsement, and assess the candidate in two to three paragraphs.

Finally, their conclusion reiterates the recommendation, provides a vision of the student at college and after, and invites admissions committees to follow up with any questions. For more on structure, check out our thorough guide to writing recommendation letters.

Now that you have a clearer sense of what goes into a strong, Harvard-worthy recommendation letter, is there anything you can to ensure you get three great letters for your application?

 

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Student team assemble! Consider this your call to action.

 

What Can You Do to Get Strong Letters of Recommendation?

If Harvard is in your sights, then you've likely laid the groundwork for strong recommendation letters. You've shown commitment to learning, academic excellence, and a love of learning. 

Since the best letters come from teachers who know you well, you should push yourself to participate in class, take on an extra project, or lead the club of which your potential recommender is an advisor. Take advantage of and create opportunities to connect with your teachers and counselor and demonstrate your passions and drive to go above and beyond (didn't I just say not to use cliches? Woops). 

Apart from having a good relationship with your recommenders, you should provide them with a thorough and insightful "brag sheet." These documents often prompt you to answer questions like, 

  • What personal qualities do you value in yourself?
  • What are one or two experiences that shaped your outlook or sense of identity?
  • What do you consider to be your greatest strengths? Weaknesses?
  • Where do you see yourself in five years?
  • What's a significant challenge you've had to overcome and what did you learn from it?

If you noticed these are similar to the Common Application essay prompts, you'd be right. Both your recommenders and admissions officers want to see your capacity for self-reflection and get a sense of how you make meaning of your experiences. Not all students are experienced at this kind of self-examination, or communicating aspects of their identities to others. Take the time to really think about these questions and give thorough answers. You can even have conversations with those close to you or ask for their input (often parents will write on these brag sheets, too).

Not only will this sheet further show your recommenders who you are, but they'll also help them out with valuable material. By writing about significant experiences or challenges, you might give or remind them of stories and examples they can use in their letters. Once they have the raw material and inspiration, your recommenders will be bursting with things to say about you.

There is one glaring gap in what I've been writing all this time about the importance of having recommenders who know you well. What if you simply don't have teachers or, more commonly, counselors who you know you very well? What do you do then?

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Friend them! But in real life.

 

What If You Don't Have Teachers or a Counselor Who Knows You Well?

Schools vary widely in terms of class sizes and counselor to student ratios. Some schools have a college counseling department, while others have school counselors balancing both students' college planning and their social-emotional needs, not to mention school-wide curricula.

The national average public school counselor to student ratio is 477 to 1. In California, it's an outrageous 945 to 1! With ratios this large, it's understandable if you've have a hard time getting to know your counselor at all.

Dean Fitzsimmons recognizes this: "There is nothing close to a level playing field when it comes to the availability of college counseling in American high schools." In addition to the "stunningly high counselee to counselor ratios," he speaks about the "unmanageable class sizes that make it nearly impossible [for teachers] to know students well enough to write an informed recommendation."

If this sounds like your school, don't despair. First, Harvard admissions officers should be familiar with the various high schools from which their students are applying. They have to account for differences in grading systems, curriculum, and stats like teacher and counselor to student ratio. They may call your counselor for more information, or simply put more weight on the other parts of your application.

Something else you can do to make up for uninformed teacher recs is to provide a supplemental letter of rec from someone who knows you better, like a supervisor, coach, religious leader, summer program coordinator, or someone from the community.

Dean Fitzsimmons said "one of the best letters we ever received" was from the school's custodian. He spoke about how his recommendee was a positive presence who "always made everyone around him better." At the same time, Harvard advises against sending too much supplemental material, especially if your teachers and counselor have already written effectively for you.

Something else you can do to improve your letter is to set up meetings with your teachers and counselor. Talk to them about your goals and how much you want to get into Harvard. (If this feels daunting, it's good practice for your Harvard interview!)

Share your detailed brag sheet and make time to discuss it together. Maybe this feels like you're telling them what to write, but if you need to, so be it. Take control of your application, and let them know what you want to go into your letter (politely, of course).

Before wrapping up, let's go over the key takeaways for obtaining a great recommendation letter that will impress Harvard readers.

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Key Takeaways for Harvard Recommendation Letters

Listen to Dean Fitzsimmons when he says that recommendation letters are "extremely important" and put as much thought and care into them as you do the rest of your application.

How? By choosing your recommenders wisely, pushing yourself to get to know them well, and providing detailed self-reflections to help them as they write. 

What if you sense your teacher isn't used to writing recommendation letters for Harvard? It would be ideal if you could ask a seasoned writer with a reputation for helping students get into competitive schools. If that's not a possibility, perhaps you can share resources like this one with your recommender. It's up to you to feel out whether this would helpful or could unintentionally cause offense. You certainly don't want to insult the person you're hoping will sing your praises. 

As a driven and conscientious student with your sights set on the Ivy League, you're definitely capable of doing everything you can to ensure three strong recommendation letters. Good luck!

 

What's Next?

Not only should you be thoughtful about who you ask, you should also have a plan for how you ask for your recommender for this important letter. Read all about how to request a letter of recommendation here.

Any chance you're also applying to Dartmouth? They require an unusual recommendation - one from a peer. Read all about peer recommendations and how to get a great one for Dartmouth.

 

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Rebecca Safier
About the Author

Rebecca graduated with her Master's in Adolescent Counseling from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has years of teaching and college counseling experience and is passionate about helping students achieve their goals and improve their well-being. She graduated magna cum laude from Tufts University and scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT.



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