Oct. 31, 2020
My daughter felt the bio teacher wasn't effective, and we required an outside tutor in the course. The English teacher has raved about my daughter's growth and character, and the religion teacher said she is one of her all-time favorite students. She also has a good relationship with her math teacher. The school counselor said she can't use the religion teacher because it's not a core course. My daughter is applying Early Decision to a very selective university where her grades put her at the top of the median range and her ACT score is well within it. This college only requires one teacher reference, but we are stressing over the choice. Can you help?
Based on the information you've supplied, "The Dean" votes for the English teacher. As the school counselor explained, the religion teacher is out because colleges are looking for a more heavy-hitter academic subject, and religion doesn't make the cut (even if the class was actually a challenging one, as it can be in some schools).
From what you've spelled out in the question, the English teacher seems to know your daughter well and can provide the information that the admission folks are seeking about her character and growth. Although your daughter is aiming for a nursing program, it's not mandatory that she send a reference from a STEM teacher, as long as her math and science grades will speak for themselves, and it sounds like they should. Reading, writing and oral communication are key components of any college program, and admission officials recognize that an English teacher can be well equipped to address a student's competency in these areas.
If you're concerned that the college counselor will find out that your daughter asked the English teacher and not the biology teacher as was suggested and will be irked by this, your daughter can candidly point out that the bio teacher wasn't an effective instructor and was aware that she had sought outside tutoring. So your daughter didn't want this tutoring mentioned in a letter of recommendation. The counselor should be able to live with that explanation and not feel that your daughter simply ignored the advice.
Presumably, however, your daughter will be applying to other colleges, in case she gets bad news from her ED school (or at least she'll be getting started on the applications, even if she never has to submit them). Some of these colleges may expect two teacher references and not just one. In that case, she should ask the bio teacher as well, so that she will have a balance of STEM and humanities recommendations OR she can ask the math teacher, whom you mentioned in passing (but only if the math teacher taught her in 11th or 12th grades. A sophomore teacher is not a wise choice.)
Most colleges don't put as much emphasis on teacher recommendations as students and parents assume they do. This is largely because the recommendations are often flattering but generic and do little to distinguish one "responsible," "conscientious" candidate from the next. So don't get too many gray hairs over this dilemma (or lose the gray hairs altogether that you've already earned from raising a teenager!).
Sally Rubenstone is a veteran of the college admissions process and is the co-author of three books covering admissions. She worked as a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years and has also served as an independent college counselor, in addition to working as a senior advisor at College Confidential since 2002. If you'd like to submit a question to The Dean please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.