The Letter of Reference from a Parent

This is the fourth in a series of posts about how a homeschooling student can put together a persuasive college application.  In this series, I talk about

• Standardized Tests
• Outside Letter of Reference
• Letter of Reference from a Parent
• Transcripts
• Student essay
• Some general things to keep in mind

In this post, I want to focus on how Mom or Dad can write a very compelling letter of reference for their child.  The secret is very simple.  Most reference letters from parents consist of vague and flabby statements like this:

“Bill was a joy to raise.”

Well, I hope so.  It would be very sad if raising one of your children were other than a joy.  But this comment fails to answer the fundamental question the admissions committee wants to answer:  Does Bill have the ability to keep up in a demanding college curriculum?  This statement is a little better:

“Steven is very bright and hard-working.”

This parent has at least tried to address the key question, but it is a simple assertion.  The parent claims that Steven is bright, but how does the admissions committee know it is true?  Admissions committees want to trust people, but you have to offer them evidence for what you say.  This next claim comes even closer to the mark:

“Molly has always done well in school.”

This parent has offered some kind of evidence for the claim that Molly is bright:  she has always done well in school.  But notice how vague the evidence is:  What does “done well” mean?  By what standard has she “done well”?  Did she do really well because she was never really challenged?  There is still very little for the admissions committee to sink its teeth into.

To avoid all these problems, all you need to do is follow the Golden Rule of recommendation writing:  show and tell!  Doesn’t just tell your reader that your child is bright and hardworking, but show the reader by presenting concrete details.  Let the reader see your child in action.  Some examples will make my point clear.

Suppose a parent wants to say, “Sally is a good writer.  She works hard at writing.”  Much better would be what one mother wrote in an actual letter of reference:

Sally has always been a leader in my writers’ group, which has ranged in age from students several years older to students a few years younger.  Many times, especially in the early years, the other students have contacted her during the week to ask for editing assistance on their papers, doubling and tripling her writing practice and awareness.

By telling Sally’s story with concrete details, this mom has given the admissions committee a chance to see for themselves that Sally is talented and hardworking.  It’s as though the committee was there to see her in action!

For another example, suppose that a parent wants to say, “My son works hard even without my hanging over him.”  How could that be put across with vivid detail?  How can you show and tell?  Consider this excerpt from an application I reviewed:

He wasn’t content to just learn to serve the Extraordinary Form of the Mass; he read Adrian Fortesque’s thick manual on the subject and proceeded to choreograph and teach his fellow servers in the way a coach teaches plays to a team (to our busy pastor’s delight).  And, de facto, he became our parish’s first (and probably most respected) authoritative emcee for the EF since Summorum Pontificum.

By telling a vivid story, these parents have overcome the impression that their judgment is subjective and biased.  And they have taken advantage of the fact that no one knows those vivid details about the applicant as well as the parent:  this is a strength the outside letter of reference does not have.

But of course, the letter of reference is only one opportunity to offer rich detail about your student’s education.  In my next post, I will talk about how the homeschooled parent can put together a high school transcript that is actually helpful to the college admissions committee.

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Author: Dr. Holmes

Dr. Jeremy Holmes teaches Theology at Wyoming Catholic College. He lives in Wyoming with his wife, Jacinta, and their eight children.

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