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Articles / Admissions / Recommendations from Math and Chem Teachers Only?

May 15, 2020

Recommendations from Math and Chem Teachers Only?

Question: My son is applying to some top colleges (MIT, Harvard, Princeton, etc.) with an intended major in engineering. He has two teachers in mind to write recommendations--one from an honors math class (he will take an AP class in senior year with the same teacher) and the other in AP chemistry, both 11th grade teachers. Is this advisable, or should he choose one teacher from a history, English, or language teacher?

Some colleges (e.g., MIT) require that applicants submit one recommendation from a math/science teacher and the other from a humanities teacher. I think that, in general, that's the wisest policy, even when it's not specified (unless the student feels that his humanities teachers are so heinous that he'd be shooting himself in the foot by asking them for endorsements). ;-)


In most cases, it's fine for a student to also send in one extra, unsolicited reference. However, ideally this should be from someone who has seen the applicant from a different perspective (employer, coach, community service adviser, etc.) and not just another teacher (who is likely to echo what the other two teachers already said) unless this teacher can also provide a new view (e.g., research mentor).

Your son should read all application instructions carefully to make sure that extra recs aren't discouraged and that he has adhered to specific requirements (e.g., engineering applicants to Columbia must include a reference from a math teacher). He might also want to present his selected teachers with a polite written request for the references that also includes a list of "highlights" of his time in their classes. Even though your son may remember forever that his European History teacher asked him to read excerpts from his term paper to the entire junior class, a busy teacher may have forgotten this by dinner time that same evening. :-( His highlights list shouldn't take a "You-must-include-this-info" tone but should instead be more along the lines of "I thought it might help you to have these reminders right in front of you."

Written by

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone knows the competitive and often convoluted college admission process inside out: From the first time the topic of college comes up at the dinner table until the last duffel bag is unloaded on a dorm room floor. She is the co-author of Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions; The Transfer Student's Guide to Changing Colleges and The International Student's Guide to Going to College in America. Sally has appeared on NBC's Today program and has been quoted in countless publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Weekend, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, People and Seventeen. Sally has viewed the admissions world from many angles: As a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years, an independent college counselor serving students from a wide range of backgrounds and the author of College Confidential's "Ask the Dean" column. She also taught language arts, social studies, study skills and test preparation in 10 schools, including American international schools in London, Paris, Geneva, Athens and Tel Aviv. As senior advisor to College Confidential since 2002, Sally has helped hundreds of students and parents navigate the college admissions maze. In 2008, she co-founded College Karma, a private college consulting firm, with her College Confidential colleague Dave Berry, and she continues to serve as a College Confidential advisor. Sally and her husband, Chris Petrides, became first-time parents in 1997 at the ripe-old age of 45. So Sally was nearly an official senior citizen when her son Jack began the college selection process, and when she was finally able to practice what she had preached for more than three decades.

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