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Articles / Applying to College / A Recommendation Letter from Mom or Dad

A Recommendation Letter from Mom or Dad

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | March 6, 2012
A Recommendation Letter from Mom or Dad

Who's your Daddy? Or your Mommy, for that matter? Could they possibly be a plus factor for your college application? Maybe.

For you high school seniors out there, most college application deadlines have passed, although there are always some schools looking for applicants well into the spring or beyond. However, for you juniors, you may do well to consider having one of your parents compose a recommendation letter for you this fall. That's not as outrageous as it sounds.

I wrote a recommendation for our son when he applied to college. The particular college to which he was applying Early Action entertained parent letters, so I took the opportunity to try to explain our boy in somewhat different terms than his teachers would. One of the tools I use in my counseling work is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). You may already know about it. It's a psychological instrument that reveals a person's preferences about living life, which results in a very specific description of personality and temperament types. My letter to admissions explained how our son's aspects were reflected in his accomplishments, behaviors, and goals. I tried to remain as objective as possible, but some "Dad pride" crept in, nonetheless.

Justin Pope, writing in the Huffington Post, addresses the issue of parental recs and I thought it would be informative to highlight some of his and others' thoughts for you here.

College Admissions: Parent Recommendations Welcomed By Some Institutions

The letter recommending Christianne Beasley for admission to Smith College didn't come from the most unbiased of sources. But there was no disputing the writer knew this applicant as well as anyone.

"Christianne and Smith seem to be a perfect match," wrote Nancy Beasley, four years ago, on behalf of her only daughter, now a Smith senior. She described Christianne's "grace and dignity," and explained why she thought the prestigious and diverse Northampton, Mass., women's college was the perfect fit for the girl she'd raised.

Smith is among just a few colleges – among them nearby Mt. Holyoke and Holy Cross in Massachusetts, St. Anselm in New Hampshire, and the University of Richmond – that invite parents to submit letters on behalf of their children (either as part of the application itself, or in a follow-up invitation after the application is received). At Smith, finalizing this month the 640 or so members of the Class of 2016 from more than 4,300 applications, a little less than half include a parental letter. The college takes pains to emphasize such letters are optional and won't make or break a decision.

What do parents tell colleges about their flesh and blood? Rarely anything bad, to be sure (though sadly, it does happen). A fair share burst with predictably over-the-top pride in their children's virtues, which are dated back to infancy, and in some cases, utero (a few years ago, Smith decided to impose a single-page limit). ...

... David Hawkins, director of public policy at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said there are reasons why very few colleges solicit parental letters. One is sheer logistical burden; most colleges don't have the staff to do more than execute a fairly straightforward admissions formula of grades and test scores. It's no accident that the practice is found only at small liberal arts colleges which take special pride in getting to know their students.

And colleges are mainly concerned with evaluating candidates academically. For that, a parental letter offers little credible guidance.

But perhaps the biggest worry, which Hawkins shares, is "advantaging the advantaged," to use the catch phrase in admissions. The question is whether the practice discourages lower-income applicants from applying, particularly those from non-English speaking families, or places such students at a disadvantage if they disproportionately decline to do so.

"Asking the parents to contribute an essay to their children's application may be a barrier for some populations," he said. ...

... But parents also seem to feel grateful for the opportunity. Often they feel shut out of the admissions process, either through lack of familiarity or – at the other extreme – warnings to give their kids space. Yet many crave acknowledgment that, yes, it's may be their children who are applying, but by gosh they had something to do with making those kids who they are. ...

... And sometimes, the assignment can force a moment – and create a memento – that will only be fully appreciated later.

In the spring of 2000, overwhelmed with applications to nearly a dozen colleges, Stephanie Soscia didn't think much about the simple, hand-written letter her mother Nancy wrote on behalf of her Smith application. But she kept it.

"Ever since she was very young, Stephanie has understood responsibility," the letter reads. "At the age of 8 she proposed that in order to receive an allowance she would get up earlier in the morning to help with the pre-school children I cared for."

It probably made little difference in Smith's decision to admit Stephanie. But after she graduated in 2004, when her mother began to suffer from Alzheimer's disease, Stephanie reread the letter and realized how much it meant to her. Two summers ago, she carried it with her on a 350-mile bike ride to raise money for Alzheimer's research. ...

... When Stephanie rediscovered the letter, "I loved reading it," she said. "I cry every time."

"When you lose a parent either because of death or in my case a debilitating brain disease, sometimes there are things that go left unsaid," she said. "I find I can get closure through that letter. I know that during our time together her love for me was strong, and she really put her all into it."


Your situation hopefully won't end up like Stephanie's, but if you do apply to a school that entertains letters from parents, I strongly recommend that you take advantage of the opportunity. One of the best pieces of advice my Dad ever gave me was "Never underestimate the power of a well-written letter." I can say a loud "Amen!" to that.


Be sure to check out all my college-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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