Generally speaking, no one is going to purposely hurt your college application and write a negative recommendation (that'd be an oxymoron). If for some reason someone feels like they can't honestly recommend you, they likely would decline or suggest someone else.
That being said, there can still be bad recommendations from writers with good intentions. And admissions officers can spot them from a mile away. These letters certainly don't help your application, and they could even hurt your chances of getting accepted. Let's take a closer look at what features make for a "bad" recommendation.
A Bad Letter is Lukewarm
Again, I'd like to think that no one would agree to provide you with a letter of recommendation and then write damaging, critical things behind your back. This would be unethical, and a pretty mean thing to do. As long as you choose your recommenders carefully, you shouldn't have any concerns about that.
The more common problem occurs if the letter writer comes off as unenthusiastic or lukewarm in her recommendation. To admissions officers who have read hundreds, if not thousands, of letters, it's pretty easy to separate the mediocre letters from the great ones.
Mediocre letters might be short and generic. They might not express admiration of your academic ability or personal qualities, or express much confidence in what you'll do at college and beyond. Rather than revealing new insights into who you are, bad recommendation letters might just state facts and figures.
When I was in high school, I asked a history teacher for a college recommendation. To my surprise (and disappointment), he gave me a generic letter and told me to go through and change the "he's" to "she's" to "customize" it. Needless to say, I quickly asked someone else. In this case, it would have been a good idea to seek advice from my counselor or others about which teachers take the time to write strong letters and which ones use a form letter for all their students.
Admissions officers expect you to be thoughtful about who you ask for your recommendation. If you present a letter that reads as though the writer didn't have much to say or was unmotivated to recommend you, then it suggests that you either didn't put much thought into your rec letters or, worse, that this was the best recommendation you could get. If you're limited in your options for recommenders because your school has large class sizes or counselor caseloads, there are still things you can do to connect with your recommenders, like setting up meetings, writing a detailed brag sheet, or sending a supplemental recommendation.
Some phrases that could come off as lukewarm include "above average" or "relatively good student." A recommender might communicate that you still have room to grow (who doesn't?), but focusing on this could also communicate that she's not too impressed with what you've done so far. This introduction is an example of a lukewarm start to a letter that doesn't sound too animated, interested, or like the writer tried to say much beyond the obvious.
I'm writing to recommend Sylvia for admission to your undergraduate program. I had Sylvia in my 11th grade chemistry class. She was an above average student with an interest in science. Sylvia participated well in class and was reliable with her homework and other assignments. She performed above average throughout the year.
Poor Sylvia. Her recommender didn't even say "strongly" or "highly" recommend. This introduction sounds unimpressed and unspecific. Another feature of a letter that's ineffective is that it doesn't go beyond your resume.
A Bad Letter Repeats Your Resume
A recommendation letter is not supposed to copy your resume. This is a common mistake of recommenders, simply listing out your grades, rank, clubs, and/or awards. Admissions officers already know all this, though. They see it in your application, or maybe you've talked about a particularly significant involvement in your personal essay. If this was all they wanted to see, then there would be no point to requiring recommendation letters.
Instead, a letter should add to your story by illustrating who you are, including your values, motivations, and goals for the future. It can describe meaningful observations and interactions that give insight into your character. It adds nuance to your story, speaking to your attitude towards learning and to your personality.
Plus, a strong recommendation letter shows that you've connected with your teachers and contributed to your school community. This indicates that you'll do the same once you arrive to college, a positive sign for admissions officers looking to build a dynamic and harmonious class.
Here's an example of a recommendation that relies on facts and figures, but doesn't go much beyond the information that's already present in the rest of your application.
Tom played football throughout all four years of high school, winning the honor of Most Valuable Player in junior year. When he wasn't practicing football, he was in Woodworking Club, which he participated in during junior and senior year. Tom has challenged himself with college prep and honors classes, earning a GPA of 3.5. He was recognized for his effort by his 10th grade English teacher, who awarded him the Best Effort certificate. Outside of school, Tom works part-time at his father's car dealership.
Admissions officers should already know all this by reading Tom's Common Application. This letter just turns bullet points into full sentences. Another feature of an ineffective recommendation is that it comes off as unspecific and unsupported.
About as helpful as using Apple Maps.
A Bad Letter is Unspecific
As discussed above, a recommendation letter should go beyond the obvious and reveal something about your commitments and character. A letter that speaks in generalities doesn't accomplish that, nor does it paint a picture of you for its readers.
While it may use general adjectives to describe you, like driven or ambitious, these adjectives don't mean all that much without examples. Like a persuasive essay where you need supporting examples to prove your thesis, a recommendation letter should relate anecdotes that demonstrate something meaningful about you and provide evidence for its assertions.
A bad letter might say,
Abby is a hard worker.
A stronger letter would say,
Abby's hard work and persistence endured throughout her in depth, year long research project on the decline of the fishing industry in 19th century Gloucester. (It might go further into detail describing her long days digging through the local library's archives and how the recommender sees her conducting historical research at her college's library next year.)
Without the examples to back it up, the first sentence about Abby being a hard worker doesn't explain what she works hard to accomplish or how her recommender knows this to be true. It also could be about almost anyone. If the recommendation letter does little to differentiate you from other students with similar credentials, then it hasn't done it's job.
A Bad Letter Could Be About Almost Anyone
That form letter I got from my history teacher wasn't just riddled with male pronouns, it also barely talked about me. It was full of generic statements about doing well in history class, working hard, and being committed to academics. All that was general, unsupported by examples, and could have been about any number of students who did well in history class.
The truth about college admissions is that there are more qualified students than there are spots in the class, especially when it comes to highly selective schools that only let a small percentage of students in. Some may share similar academic and extracurricular profiles. They might have the same GPA, same class selection, and similar involvements in clubs and sports.
That's why the recommendation letters, along with the student's own personal essay, are so important for distinguishing one student from another. Letters that are general, don't share anecdotes, and list out facts and data could be about any students that share a similar resume. They're flat, boring to read, and suggest that the teacher doesn't know anything personal about the student. Maybe the student just gave her a resume, and she turned the bulletpoints into prose.
Finally, another red flag for admissions officers could be if the letter is simply too short. Not only did the recommender not have anything personal to add to the student's recommendation, but she also didn't have much to say at all.
A Bad Letter is Too Short
A recommendation letter should be a full page. It shouldn't usually go beyond a page, but it also shouldn't be shorter. Just having an introduction, short body paragraph, and conclusion wouldn't be sufficient. It might fulfill the application requirement, but it wouldn't look good or communicate all that much.
If your letter's short, this is immediately noticeable to a reader. It suggests you didn't choose your recommender very well, she doesn't know you, and you didn't give her much material to work with. Instead of making the positive impression that a good letter of recommendation can leave, it feels lacking.
Since no one wants her application dragged down by subpar recommendation letters, what can you do to avoid a bad one? Are these documents out of your hands, or do you have some say in the matter?
Be proactive, be be, proactive!
What to Do to Avoid a Bad Letter of Recommendation
Before you even begin making requests for letters of recommendation, you should go into junior year (and high school, for that matter) with a proactive mindset. Participate in class, get to know at least one or two of your teachers well, and talk to them about your educational goals. Demonstrate your interest in a subject by taking on an independent project or joining a club of which that teacher is an advisor. If you're planning to apply to a selective school or for a certain major, showing a specific commitment like this will impress admissions officers and your future recommenders.
When you're finally ready to ask, be thoughtful about who you ask. If your teacher seems hesitant at all, it's probably a good idea to thank her and then ask someone else instead. If she has reservations, that will show through in the letter. Ask early in case you need to change track, plus some teachers set quotas and have a first come, first served policy for writing letters. Give them time, at least a month, to put thought into your letter, rather than rushing through a copy so you have something to send in ahead of deadlines.
As I should have done before my recommendation mistake, ask your counselor for her recommendations on who writes good letters. Seasoned teachers are often a good choice, especially if they have a reputation for helping students get into their schools of choice. If you've forged a good relationship with a relatively new teacher, it might be beneficial to share your thoughts on what could make your letter outstanding.
Whether or not it's appropriate to share resources on letter writing with your recommender is a judgment call, as you wouldn't want to insult the person you're hoping will praise you. You can feel out whether it would be welcome to share guides like this one with your recommender, or whether she already has a strong sense of purpose in her letter writing.
Apart from participating in class and talking to your teachers, you can also give them a detailed brag sheet. Share important information that you want them to know about you, along with specific significant experiences or challenges in your life that they could potentially speak about in their letters. Tell them what qualities and interests you're highlighting in the rest of your application, so they can complement your story without repeating too much of it.
Above all, make sure your recommender is genuinely happy to help you get accepted to college and will put in the time and effort to craft a thoughtful, specific, and customized letter of recommendation. While your brag sheet can help her out a great deal, she should still have enough material and inspiration from having you in class or school to create an insightful letter of support.
Before you can invite your recommenders on the Common App, you're asked about waiving your right to access. Should you agree to this FERPA waiver? What's this question all about? Learn all about it here.
If you're a teacher writing letters for your students, check out our complete guide to writing strong recommendations 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.