Choose your friends wisely, they say...because they might be getting you into college. Granted, that phrase probably didn't originate in the world of competitive college admissions, but it applies to Dartmouth and Davidson, both of which require peer recommendations along with the traditional teacher and counselor recs.
Your peers can (and are expected to) give a different perspective than your teachers and counselors. This guide will go over the exact requirements for peer evaluations, along with advice on who you can ask and how to ensure a strong peer recommendation for your college applications.
To start, which schools want a peer letter of rec, and what are they looking for?
Requirements for Peer Recommendations
The only two schools that require peer recs so far are Dartmouth and Davidson (well, Dartmouth just "strongly encourages" that you send one, but that's the same as required when you're applying to such a selective school). Some students also opt to provide supplemental peer evaluations to other colleges, especially if their teacher or counselor rec letters are lacking in deep insight or information. I would advise caution about this—admissions officers usually don't enjoy too much extra material unless it really adds an important dimension to The Story of You.
For Dartmouth, your peer evaluation can come from much pretty much anybody, whether it's a friend, fellow student, co-worker, or sibling. Dartmouth says,
"You might ask a friend from school, or camp, or your neighborhood. It might be a teammate, someone from your community of faith, or a co-worker. Perhaps a cousin, a sibling: it doesn't matter. We don't want another letter from a teacher, coach, or other supervisory presence in your life; we have enough of those. Ask a peer who can provide fresh insight into your interests and your character.
Davidson, on the other hand, seems to prefer that the peer remain outside the family and be a classmate or friend. They say,
"This Peer Recommendation is to be completed by a classmate or close friend who knows the applicant well and can evaluate the applicant's strengths. This recommendation can provide useful information in ascertaining the competitiveness of the applicant. You, as a close friend or classmate, know the applicant in a different way than do teachers, counselors, principals, and advisors. Your insights will help us to understand the nature and extent of the respect accorded to the applicant by peers. Since Davidson can select only a small number of the total applicant pool to fill each year's entering class, your assessment of this applicant's strengths and weaknesses will be important in our decision."
Both Dartmouth and Davidson are hoping the peer evaluation will provide fresh insight into the applicant's character and personality. Rather than speaking to your academic achievement and potential, peer recs can discuss your personal qualities and passions, along with who you are as a friend and how you'll interact and contribute socially on campus. This is an important and distinct shift from teacher and counselor recommendations, which tend to be more formal and focused on past achievements and future potential.
Before delving deeper into exactly what admissions committees are looking for in peer recommendations, let's conclude these logistics with information on how to submit. Dartmouth will have you add your peer recommender using the "Other Recommender" tab on the Common Application. Your friend or relative will upload his/her letter onto the Common App.
Davidson asks peer recommenders to upload their letters here. In addition to the statement of support, recommenders are asked to rank you on a number of character traits and personal qualities, such as your leadership, energy and initiative, self-confidence, concern for others, and reaction to criticism. While the additional statement seems optional, simply saying, "We welcome any additional statement you wish to make about the applicant," it's important that your peer recommender give a thoughtful response. That's the main part of the peer evaluation.
Apart from getting a sense of who you are as a peer rather than as a student, what do admissions officers hope to learn from the peer letter of reference?
What Do Admissions Committees Look For in Peer Recommendations?
Admissions officers like to emphasize that their process is a "holistic" one, meaning they're not just looking at grades and test scores, but rather trying to get a sense of who the student is as a person. Some of a student's motivations, interests, and commitments can be gleaned from their involvement in and out of school and accomplishments over the years. A student active in her school's Gay-Straight Alliance and Amnesty International likely cares about activism, social justice, and the promotion of human rights.
However, one student might be involved in these clubs because she aspires to be a human rights lawyer, while another student might be driven to use social entrepreneurship to promote causes she believes in. Both these goals speak to different interests and future fields of study and plans. Recommendation letters can shed more light on why a student does what she does. They can describe what drives a student and what personal qualities make her stand out.
Peer recommendations are unique, because they can speak to your character and personality from the perspective of a friend and sibling. They're not expected to be formal or to try to emulate how a teacher or counselor might write. Instead, they can reflect the relationship you and your recommender have together.
Admissions officers want to know what kind of friend, roommate, and peer you'll be when you come to campus. Some skills that might impress them include strong communication, collaboration, passion, focus, resourcefulness, humor, friendliness, compassion, and resilience. Your peer is in an especially good spot to comment on your qualities as a friend, whether it include your openness, emotional intelligence, maturity, loyalty, creativity, and supportiveness, to name a few.
The strongest recommendations will highlight and dive deeply into a few significant qualities. They'll also use specific examples and stories to demonstrate those qualities. Rather than simply calling you a supportive friend, for instance, your recommender could write about the care packages you put together for her every day for a month when her family was going through tough times. As the old adage of creative writing goes, your recommender should remember to "show, don't tell."
Given all this, who can you ask that will write you a thoughtful, insightful, and colorful letter of recommendation?
Who Should You Ask for a Peer Recommendation?
The best peer recommendations come from people who know you well. Your recommender should be able to write about meaningful, touching, funny, or poignant experiences that illuminate positive aspects of you. Of course, you also want to make sure there's no conflict of interest that could potentially compromise your recommendation.
If your friend is also applying to Dartmouth, has been planning her whole life to go there, and is worried about how selective it is, you might want to ask yourself if there's any chance she doesn't have your best interests at heart. Hopefully no one would purposely sabotage your application for her own gain, but just something to consider!
A third important consideration is how strong of a writer your friend is, and how much time and effort she can give to your letter. While she may have the best intentions of helping you, if she has subpar writing skills or is juggling her own insanely busy schedule, then your letter might not end up as the powerful statement of support you need for selective schools like Dartmouth and Davidson.
Finally, I would say that your friend's openness to suggestions and advice could be another helpful factor. Assuming your friend isn't a Dartmouth or Davidson admissions expert, you could help her out a lot by telling her about the school's culture and about what goes into a strong letter of recommendation.
You can share information and advice with her, and she can learn about peer recommendation letters in her effort to write a strong one. A friend who's open to learning about the key content, structure, and techniques that go into making a rec letter stand out will likely provide a more valuable reference than one who just wants to wing it!
In addition to gathering information about yourself, your college of choice, and peer recommendation letters, what else can you prepare to ask your friend for this favor?
This is serious preparation (or a bad case of freshman backpack).
How Should You Ask for a Peer Recommendation?
Assuming you're taking my first piece of advice and asking someone with whom you're close and who knows you well, then hopefully it's easy to request this favor. In the asking, I would recommend describing exactly what it entails and all the key information.
For instance, you should talk to your friend about the school you're applying to, whether it be Davidson or Dartmouth, so she knows about its profile and expectations. You should share your application with her, so that her recommendation can complement it or add a new dimension. If you've spoken in length about your commitment to volunteer work in your community, for example, then your friend could zoom in on your caring, compassionate, open nature and skill at connecting with people from all walks of life.
Remind your friend that the recommendation is meant to reveal your personal qualities and indicate what kind of peer you'll be on campus. Your friend should indicate how they know you, in what contexts, and what makes them qualified to recommend you.
For instance, this example shows that the recommender and recommendee have been friends for a long time, as well as gives an example to demonstrate Susie's adventurous spirit:
Susie and I have been attending Happy Pine Tree Summer Camp since we were ten, first as campers and now as counselors. I knew from the first summer, when Susie eagerly volunteered to be the first to zipline over the valley, that she had a fearless, adventurous, and bold spirit. It's that spirit that drew me to her on that first day of camp and that continues to inspire me and everyone around Susie to live life to the fullest.
This letter could focus on Susie's fearless nature and her leadership and motivational skills. It could also discuss her goals for the future and how these qualities will ensure that she achieves them.
In addition to describing your relationship, highlighting a few specific strengths, and telling specific stories, your recommender should also know the value of using powerful language. Words like compassionate, brilliant, and energetic are usually more impactful than nice, smart, and fun.
To make sure your friend knows the importance and purpose of rec letters, you could discuss these tips with her, as well as give them guides like this one. Teaching her about rec letters will both make your final letter stronger and help her approach it from a knowledgable and purposeful standpoint.
Reference letters are typically confidential, so it's up to your peer whether she wants to share it and get your feedback. Even if she chooses to keep it private, you can help shape what goes into it by sharing all this input.
Finally, I would encourage your friend to be creative and write in the style that's most authentic for her. Peer evaluations don't have to be formal—they can be funny or heartfelt, conversational or serious. The most important thing is that they clearly and convincingly present your outstanding qualities and show that you have a friend eager to go to bat for you. Your friend can choose how she can best communicate exactly what makes you so awesome.
Since the rec letter takes time and thought, I would recommend asking your friend at least a month before your deadline. You can remind her again about a week before your deadline. Finally, make sure to thank her afterwards with hugs, cupcakes, or whatever token of appreciation she'd like best.
To sum up, let's go over the key steps that got you to this point of gratitude cupcakes.
Key Takeaways for Peer Letters of Rec
- Ask someone who knows you well, has strong writing skills, and 100% supports you and your college plans.
- Give your recommender plenty of time before your deadline, and educate him or her on the college, your goals, and what makes a great rec letter, like meaningful stories and examples. You may also share the rest of your application so your peer can complement it in the letter.
- Check in with him/her to see about any questions or if (s)he wants to brainstorm ideas.
- Finally, make sure your peer knows exactly how and when to submit your recommendation.
A mediocre peer recommendation probably won't sink your application, but a stellar one could go a long way towards making you come alive for admissions committees as a student they want on their campus come fall. Especially at a highly selective Ivy League school like Dartmouth, every aspect of your application counts. So if you do ultimately get the thick acceptance letter welcoming you to the class, make sure to celebrate with your recommender and let him/her know s(he)'s your BFF for life.
Maybe you're not the applicant, but the writer of a peer letter of recommendation (or both! Stranger things have happened...). Read all about how to write an outstanding peer recommendation here.
Are you interested in this topic because you're hoping to don Dartmouth green in a few years? This article goes in depth about how to get a great peer recommendation specifically for Dartmouth College.
If the Ivy League is in your sights, you might also be seeing crimson (bear with me). Learn what makes an impressive recommendation letter for Harvard here.
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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.