Wednesday, October 7, 2009

MIT: "Some recommendations about recommendations"

MIT admissions officer Matt McGann offers this advice about teacher evaluations:

Some recommendations about recommendations

Thursday, September 24, 2009, 2:04:23 PM | Matt McGann '00
At MIT, we require all applicants to send in two letters of recommendation -- one from a math or science teacher ("Evaluation A") and one from a humanities teacher ("Evaluation B").

If you are applying this year -- early action (November 1 deadline) or regular action (January 1 deadline) -- I hope that you have already asked your teachers if they can write a letter on your behalf. Please recognize that teachers are very busy -- teachers in this country are seriously overworked and underpaid; I hope you will respect their time. So whether your application deadline is about a month away, or about three months away, please have these conversations now or very soon, if you have not yet done so.

I recommend that you find some face-to-face time alone with each teacher to ask them in person to write your letter, and to have a conversation about it. This is a much better approach than just leaving the recommendation form on their chair and running away. I recommend giving them all of the recommendation forms for every one of the schools you're applying to at once. This is also a good time to tell them about why you're applying to each school, and how you see yourself as a match for each place. Teachers often find these conversations very helpful.

If a teacher asks you to write the recommendation for them -- do not do this (these requests rarely happen in the United States, but do happen with some frequency abroad). Instead, ask another teacher. Teacher recommendations should only be written by the teacher and by no one else.

If you attend school outside the United States, and have teachers who are not English fluent, this is okay -- you can still have them write you a recommendation. They can write in their native language; the letter can then be translated. There are many sources for translation, and one that you may find helpful is an English teacher at your high school. Official translations from agencies are also good. If you send us a translated recommendation, please include both the English translated copy and the original in the native language.

MIT's teacher recommendation forms are available for download from your MyMIT application portal. Please note that there is no online recommendation system for MIT; recommendations will need to be on paper and mailed to the admissions office. We prefer that teachers use our forms, but it's okay if your high school has its own form, or if teachers want to use the Common App's paper recommendation form. It is also okay -- common, in fact -- for teachers to write their own letter and not answer the questions on our form. We just ask that your teacher attach that letter to our form -- with your name and date of birth clearly indicated -- and that the letter address the questions on our form.

Who should you ask? You should certainly ask a teacher who has taught you in an academic class in high school (i.e. no middle school, and no basket weaving class). Ideally, this will also be a teacher who knows you as more than just a student who does well on all the tests. We find that the best recommendations are written by teachers who know an applicant well as both a student and a person. For example: the English teacher who is your newspaper advisor, the math teacher who is your math team coach, the biology teacher who is your field hockey coach, the history teacher that you talk about politics and health care policy with, the physics teacher who you challenge each day for the best time on the New York Times crossword puzzle, the chemistry teacher who is your mentor.

Also -- you do not need to choose the teacher that teaches the subject that you want to major in. You do not need to choose the teacher from whom you received the best grade. You do not need to choose a senior year teacher -- but you should choose someone with whom you have an ongoing relationship.

You can choose a teacher who has retired or moved to a different school, as long as that teacher meets the above criteria. The process is the same in this case.

I get many questions about what subject teachers can write the A or B eval. As a general rule, if the teacher teaches a class that would count towards MIT's math & science requirement, that teacher should fill out the A Evaluation; if the teacher teaches a class that would count towards MIT's humanities, arts, and social sciences requirement, that teacher should fill out the B Evaluation.

Purely as an exercise, I made a list of different kinds of classes that high school students might take, and tried to classify them as an A Evaluation or B Evaluation as best I could. A few are pretty fuzzy (and could be categorized reasonably either way -- no worries), but most seem pretty straight forward:

A Evaluation potential subjects





Earth Science

Environmental Science

Computer Science




B Evaluation potential subjects















Social Studies




After you have chatted with your teacher and given them the recommendation forms, you can track whether or not MIT has received and processed the letter on your MyMIT tracking page. Please allow up to two weeks processing time during peak application season. If the letter has not shown up as processed by the application deadline, do not worry. You may wish to very politely check in with the teacher, but you do not need to constantly hound them. As long as you have given your teachers sufficient time to write on your behalf, they will get your letter in to us. And we are much more flexible with teacher recommendations that come in a little late than we are with late student application materials.

And when MIT does process your teacher's letter -- please thank your teacher. It's the nice thing to do, and they deserve it.

I hope this is helpful!

[Please note: with this entry, I speak for MIT Admissions. While much of this advice is universal, YMMV with other schools for the specific tips, tricks, and rules]

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