Should Parents Write Letters of Recommendation?

A college on my daughter’s list has asked her father and me for a letter of reference. It will be very tough for us to write about this girl we love and admire so much with the hope that the admission committee will view her as we do and will take our praise seriously. But once we’ve done it, can we send this letter to her other colleges, too, the ones that didn’t ask us for a reference? (I saw that in a book you wrote a few years ago, you said it was a good idea.)

Heaven help me if I ever try to run for political office! My opponents would have no trouble unearthing positions I’ve taken in the past which I’ve since reversed. And my stance on unsolicited parent letters is one of them … well, sort of. Why? Read on:

Not long after I started working in the admission office at Smith College, a couple of decades ago, the administration decided to offer parents the opportunity to write a recommendation for their applicant daughters. I suspect that this plan was hatched largely as a public-relations ploy. The idea was that Mom and Dad would proclaim, “Gee, finally a college that cares about us and what we think,” and then they’d encourage their daughters to attend Smith.

Well, even if the concept was self-serving, the parent letters were a huge plus. We often saw sides of our candidates that weren’t revealed anywhere else in their applications. Mothers and fathers were full of anecdotes, and the best parent letters weren’t merely strings of accolades (“conscientious,” “hard-working,”"reliable”) but also illustrated these qualities. Sure, some letters were a bit top-heavy with tales of pre-school triumphs (“She was the first girl in the Gopher Group to draw a tree that almost looked like one!” ), and such fond family memories didn’t always translate into effective application fodder. Yet, overall, the parent letters enabled us to view our applicants through a unique lens.

So, if it were up to me, I’d respond with a resounding “YES” to your query. In fact, in Panicked Parents’ Guide to College Admissions (last updated in 2002), I do indeed suggest that parents should feel free to send reference letters to colleges that don’t request them. But a year or so ago, this topic came up on the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) listserve. I was amazed by how many college admission folks made disparaging remarks about parent references. It was as if I could almost seeing them rolling their eyes in Cyberspace. The general consensus seemed to be that, of course, parents are going to support their kids, so the letters will inevitably lack credibility. Some college staffers even called the letters pretentious, their authors pompous or misguided (possibly by me??? :( ).

Obviously, as I noted above, a letter of recommendation–regardless of who writes it–is not terribly effective if it provides only complimentary adjectives. But when anecdotes are supplied to support the accolades, it’s a whole different story. And this is true when the letters come from Mom or Dad, as well. Sure, the most cynical admission officials might suspect that such anecdotes from parents are not authentic. But I was always willing to make the assumption that they were, and they certainly offered information that the rest of the application didn’t.

So, bottom line: If the letter you compose for the college that requests it really seems to paint a picture of your daughter that the rest of her application doesn’t, then you should consider sending it to all her target colleges. But if you do, caveat it up the wazoo! Candidly explain that you initially wrote it for another school, that you were daunted by the task but pleased with the results. Point out that it shows a side that other application materials do not–one that you hope will be helpful. But grovel a bit as well, and apologize in advance for adding to in-box overload and for potentially coming across as presumptuous.

It can be frustrating to recognize that your terrific child is about to be adjudicated by strangers who don’t know her. That’s one reason that I was always a big fan of the parent letters. But now, since I’ve discovered that many admission officials are not as enthused as I am, I suggest that you ignore any advice of mine that you stumbled on from the past and use your own judgment instead.. Send the letter only if it reveals information that you think the colleges should know and which might not otherwise reach them. And if I do ever run for public office, expect to find lots of 180′s in my voting record. ;)

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