4 Myths About U.S. College Recommendation Letters

Brazilian native Julia Mansur Cardoso was more than prepared when applying to U.S. universities. She made sure to reach out to contacts early for letters of recommendation and secured five separate letters, so she could use different ones for different college programs.

“I had my college list ready before asking for most letters of recommendation,” says Cardoso, who ended up at the University of Kentucky. “Most of the schools I applied to required three, so I thought five would be a good number considering that I was applying for somewhat different programs, all related to management and economics.”

While not all schools require them, letters of recommendation can help prospective international students stand out in an increasingly competitive applicant pool.

“Recommendations are very important to demonstrate that a candidate has the personal qualities that will enable them to succeed in college,” says Cathy Costa, founder of Costa Educational Consulting. “And some schools weigh recommendations more heavily than others.”

Many students looking to head to the U.S. for college are coming from high schools where staff members speak English and can write letters in the language. But experts say that universities also generally accept letters that have been translated.

Prospective international students unfamiliar with the U.S. college application process may have some misconceptions about the role of letters of recommendation. Here are a few things students should know.

Myth 1: Grades and Test Scores Matter More

All parts of a student’s application are reviewed by the admissions committee, and grades and test scores are just one factor — especially in a holistic, highly selective admissions process, say experts.

“It all matters,” says Amy Hoffman, associate director of admission for selection and academic initiatives at Miami University in Florida. “I just told a student today at a college fair, ‘You have worked way too hard these last three-plus years to come down to being defined by a number.'”

Many schools are now test-optional or test-blind, so letters can hold a lot of weight in the admissions decision process.

“Sure, the numbers matter,” says Hoffman. “Colleges want students who are going to be successful on their campuses, but looking beyond the numbers says more about the student than just scores.”

[Read: How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation for College.]

Myth 2: No One Reads Recommendation Letters Anyway

Prospective international students may think those reviewing their application may not even bother to read the letters, but that’s not so.

“This is absolutely not true! At Grinnell, we read the recommendation letters,” says Sarah Fischer, assistant vice president of admission at Grinnell College in Iowa.

She says letters add an important dimensionality to the application by helping a school better understand students’ personalities and the roles they play in the classroom, their school and in their community.

“Recommendation letters also give us insight into any special circumstances that may have affected the student’s learning and they can shed light on the student’s life experiences,” Fischer says.

Hoffman has been reviewing applications for 10 years. She says she has read thousands of recommendation letters and respects the time and thought by teachers and counselors who carefully use “the right adjectives and descriptors to truly let us know the student’s character, abilities and tenacity.”

[READ: Considering the U.S. for College or Graduate School.]

Myth 3: A Letter From a High-Profile Person is Best

Getting a letter from a high-profile academic or other leader who barely knows the student won’t get an applicant any extra points.

“Honestly, I rarely look at the title of the person writing the letter,” Hoffman says. “The better the recommender not only knows the student, but can genuinely speak to their character, qualities and abilities, the more weight that letter will carry, regardless of the title.”

Cardoso says getting a recommendation letter from a teacher that knew her well was the most important to her.

“It’s better to ask someone who truly knows you than a random teacher in your area of interest,” Cardoso says.

Also, Costa says a high-profile letter can come off as entitlement or name-dropping, “which could be perceived as a distasteful demonstration of the student’s sense of privilege.”

However, she says if the well-known person actually knows the student very well through their direct experience, “that can be a powerful endorsement.”

Myth 4: The More Letters the Better

Quality matters more than quantity with letters of recommendation, experts say.

“In almost all cases, one succinct well-written letter can not only suffice, but will contain exactly what the admission office needs to know about the student,” Hoffman says.

Costa says the number of letters required is indicated on the Common Application and most schools do not want more than stated.

“It adds to their workload and indicates that the student does not follow instructions or value the admission folks’ time,” Costa says.

Even among schools that do allow multiple letters, she recommends students use good judgment and only include letters that add value and tell the admissions committee something they care about and don’t already know.

“More is not always better,” Fischer says. “If the volume is too much, it can also exhaust the application reader and take away from the other good things in the file that require attention.”

More from U.S. News

4 Ways International Freshmen Can Develop Active Social Lives

10 Mistakes to Avoid as an International College Freshman in the U.S.

How U.S. High School Can Prepare International Students for College

4 Myths About U.S. College Recommendation Letters originally appeared on usnews.com

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