Peer Letter of Recommendation for College: What Should It Say?

Catherine Kannam

Peer Letter of Recommendation for College: What Should It Say? 

Letters of recommendation can be anxiety inducing. I distinctly remember how nervous I was to ask my teachers – what if they say no? What if they turn it in late?? What if they don’t truly recommend me??? Letters of recommendation often cause stress because they are the only part of the application that you are not writing. But that’s exactly why they are valued so much to admissions officers: letters of recommendation from a third party provide a more objective sense of who you are.

Nearly all colleges in the U.S. require two teacher recommendations and one from your guidance counselor. Through these letters, schools hope to understand how you interact in the classroom. How do you participate? How do you perform? How hard do you work? Schools typically allow an optional third recommendation for a mentor outside of the classroom. Whether it be your coach or the director of your musical, it can be valuable for admissions officers to better understand how you pursue your passions through your extracurriculars.

But a couple of schools have an added twist: they ask for a peer letter of recommendation. Currently, Dartmouth and Davidson are the institutions that ask for this perspective, with Davidson requiring a peer letter of recommendation and Dartmouth strongly encouraging it. Rule of thumb: whenever a top school strongly recommends you do something, you should do it.

When it came time for me to pick who would write my peer letter of recommendation for Dartmouth, I agonized over the decision. When the tables were turned and I was asked to write letters on behalf of friends that were applying, I felt the pressure. While the peer letter of recommendation process should be done thoughtfully, who you ask and what they say should come naturally. Here are some guidelines on who to ask for a peer letter of recommendation, and what they should say.

Who to pick:

Pick someone that likes you: 

This seems obvious, but it’s a consideration that should not be overlooked. If you’ve had any past controversy with a teammate, neighbor or pal from school, it’s in your best interest to steer clear of this person. You want someone who you are certain will only allude to wonderful things about you. You do not want to risk past dirt resurfacing when applying to your dream schools!

Ask someone to write this recommendation who shows nothing but the upmost enthusiasm to write it. If you ask someone and they seem hesitant, abort! Either this friend isn’t a very true friend, or they’re not going to put their all into it. A Dartmouth Former Admissions reader told me a story about a peer letter of recommendation that opened like this: “I told this person I shouldn’t be the one to write for them, but here goes nothing!” Nothing makes an admissions officer question your likability and personality more than this statement. Pick someone who wholeheartedly loves you, and wants to take an active role to get into your dream school.

Pick someone that will dig deep: 

Ideally, all recommendations would shine light on your character. But no matter what, your other recommenders will know you in a more professional setting. Dartmouth and Davidson clearly state how this letter is different:

Dartmouth: “We don’t want another letter from a teacher, coach, or other supervisory presence in your life; we have enough of those. Ask a peer who can provide fresh insight into your interests and your character.”

Davidson: You, as a close friend or classmate, know the applicant in a different way than do teachers, counselors, principals, and advisors. Your insights will help us to understand the nature and extent of the respect accorded to the applicant by peers.”

Dartmouth and Davidson want to know what kind of roommate you are going to be. How are you going to interact with your classmates? What kind of friend are you? They want to know what you’re really like with your guard down. A peer letter of recommendation needs to be incredibly personal in order to be successful.

Ask someone who won’t shy away from talking about the impact you’ve had on them. Great peer letters of recommendation will talk about specific stories and anecdotes that show what kind of person you are. When was a time you really stepped up? A moment you had your friend laughing uncontrollably? This is so much more powerful than vague statements like “I love my friend because they are incredibly caring.” This proves hollow if you fail to back it up! If you’re writing the letter, show the admissions office why your friend is caring. Compelling letters will clearly show why the applicant is a fantastic person.

Pick someone that’s a good writer:

At the end of the day, a peer letter of recommendation is part of your application and will be a part of your admissions decision. Even though you aren’t writing it, it reflects on you! Pick someone who is a strong writer, and will make you proud.

You should be thoughtfully putting your application together, drafting and editing every component until it’s perfect. This letter should be as strong as the rest of your application! Pick someone you know will write clearly and professionally. The person who writes this letter needs to not only love you, but express it well. 

Who not to pick:

Don’t just pick someone because they seem impressive:

Sometimes applicants think that a flashy title or famous name will impress admissions officers and do the trick. This is just completely false. The whole point of a peer recommendation is to help admissions officers see who you are on a more personal level. Who they are doesn’t matter! Dartmouth explicitly says this on their website:

You might ask a friend from school, or camp, or your neighborhood. It might be a teammate, someone from your community of faith, or a co-worker.  Perhaps a cousin, a sibling: it doesn’t matter.”

When I was debating who to ask to write my peer letter of recommendation, it felt too obvious to ask my sister. But the reality is, it should feel this natural. Don’t’ try to pick who you think colleges want to hear from, because they really don’t care who the peer is. This application is still about you! What matters is what this peer says about you.

Don’t just pick someone because they go to the school:

An old family friend of mine asked me to write a peer letter of recommendation on her behalf, and it was clear that they only asked me because I attended the school. I hadn’t spoken to her in years, and did not feel like I could adequately recommend her. Dartmouth’s intention is not for every applicant to scrounge up a Dartmouth connection to write this letter. Having ties to the school is certainly not a pre-requisite for attending! Going back to points 1 and 2: most importantly, this person needs to love you, and be able to talk about you on a deeply personal level.

On the other hand, if one of your best friends happens to attend or be an alum of the school, take advantage of this! These recommendations can be incredibly powerful, as they help place the applicant within the context of the school. Writing a peer letter of recommendation for my cousin was effortless. Because I’ve known him literally since he was born, it was easy for me to talk about his character, and how he would specifically contribute to Dartmouth’s campus through their Outing Club. If you happen to have a connection to the school, a peer letter of recommendation can be all the more relevant.

The peer letter of recommendation can be a fun opportunity for a friend to boast about how amazing you are! Take time to consider who would be best to ask, but don’t overthink it. The most important thing is that this person adores you.

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