What are some red flags in a college application that not many people talk about?

However, wouldn’t such a recommendation be a disadvantage compared to an applicant from a well resourced prep school where recommenders are well trained and experienced in writing recommendations that elite colleges like to see?

Disadvantage? Yes (although I would hope well trained AOs are aware of these differences between schools)
No benefit from the recommendation? Yes
Red flag? I don’t see it that way


Wow- that’s remarkably passive aggressive. I hope there aren’t too many teachers who agree to provide recommendations only to offer such observations.


I don’t see this as a red flag.

Many students don’t have counselor LoRs because their counselors can’t/won’t write LoRs because they have huge caseloads (national average is 482:1 per most recent data I’ve seen). It is also true that students with a counselor LoR may get a benefit in admissions.

AOs repeatedly state upon direct questioning that not having a LoR will not disadvantage a student, and I take them at their word. They understand that many counselors can’t provide a LoR. Most colleges don’t require a LoR, and some of the ones that do (which skew highly rejective) are rethinking/dropping this requirement.


We are in a medium size competitive public school district where many kids need 2 or more recommendations required as part of their application. Most classes have 25-30 students and experiential learning takes a back burner to finishing required materials.

DD23 asked her AP Lang teacher for a recommendation. She had an A average but no particular deep relationship with the teacher. The teacher said no because she was limiting the number of recommendations so she can focus on quality. On one hand, I agree that asking for so many recommendations is timing consuming. But on the other hand, colleges are asking teachers for recommendations, so shouldn’t these teacher take the time to write them as part of their job? My D moved on and found another teacher and maybe it was for the best.


I don’t think teachers get paid to write recommendations, and I think they’re well within their rights- and responsibilities- to suggest kids get recommendations elsewhere if they feel it’s burdensome.


The “part of their job” question can be debated (but not here). And depending on the union, the collective bargaining agreement night have something to say.

Regardless, unlimited recommendations does not mean unlimited time to write the recommendations. Would you suggest they take the time from teaching preparation or grading? Many of the well-sought after teachers limit the number of recs, so asking early is important.

If the options are finding another teacher vs forcing a teacher to write a less-than-stellar rec, I’d opt for the former


I’d rather a hesitant teacher say ‘no’ than to force them to write a recommendation.

Regional ad coms are most likely reading all the applications from the same school so they will see the differences between a great recommendation and one that is just meh.


It does take a lot of time to write these and the school needs to support the teacher. A teacher shouldn’t be expected to write an unlimited number of recommendations on their own time.

At our large public HS, normally the school gets substitutes so that the teachers that write a lot of recommendations can take a few days to work on them, but this year they don’t have enough substitutes available. So the administration warned students and parents that teachers would be limited in the number of letters they could agree to write.


Not to drift too far off topic, but I told both of my kids in December that they had to ask their teachers for recs by Feb latest. At our school, the most popular teachers will limit how many they write. Otherwise they’d spend all their after school time writing recs.

Back to the topic…
Another possible red flag is inflated activities, or a lot of one-off activities. So, a student joins the Leo’s Club, (pretty well known off shoot of the Lion’s Club) for example, and literally never does more than attend the meetings, then writes in the activities section “I attended all meetings, and cleaned up after meetings,” and never participated in any of the activities: Polar Plunge, collecting and distributing winter coats, fundraiser event, etc… Or the student’s activities are all just one time things that don’t show any commitment.

Of course, activities need context in terms of the circumstances in which a student lives. So a student with a lot of home responsibilities might have a fairly barren activities section. This is why we remind students that those things also count as activities. In fact, at least one Ivy League college asks if a student has those types of responsibilities and has a list for students to tick boxes.


Poor grades and poor standardized scores. For about 90% of the schools, that will do.

Essays, supplements, ECs are only relevant to very selective colleges, colleges that pretend to be selective, and sometimes for honors college admissions. Although, many programs rely on grades + scores for admission.

So yeah, that’s the truth. :slight_smile:


Sadly, and illegally, any hint of mental illness - though can certainly be overcome makes admission harder as colleges are overwhelmed with students with mental health issues. Hypocritically, hints of grade-grubbing and working mostly for grades (as though in the real world anyone from a high pressure school has any chance at the rejectives without doing this).


Our private school has the juniors ask teachers for recs before school ends in June. Teachers can say no if they have already committed to a lot of students. I haven’t heard an anecdote of this happening though, perhaps because it has to be a junior or senior year teacher and class sizes are small. In contrast in a nearby very high performing public high school, they still don’t have a lot of college counselors and kids need to be paying attention to know to do this. A kid I know asked a teacher last week for a letter. Not all kids are ready to think about college until now (or still not ready). Fortunately for this kid this teacher said yes! At our school that would be a hard no. But our kids are warned way ahead that they will need letters. To be fair, this public school student is mostly applying to public schools that don’t require letters, but I guess he found out recently that one or more of his schools did require it.


A list of EC’s that scream “privilege”, e.g.

Summer study at [famous university] that anyone with $$ can attend
Shadowing Dr. XYZ
1 week mission trip to [impoverished country]
Start charity/club junior year
LoR from some political figure with whom you have had limited contact

You probably can get away with 1 or 2 of these, but if the EC list is 10 items long with multiple “bought” or through family connection EC’s, that would be a problem.


Also ECs that sound grossly exaggerated or unlikely.

A couple of examples I’ve seen here on CC:

  • President of Doctors Without Borders
  • Built a fully operational electric car over summer break (no, not a model - an actual drivable car)

LOL that is quite something. I sadly feel that AOs are pretty credulous below something crazy like this.

Substitute “political figure” with CEO, major donor, famous alum, etc and the statement will still be correct


A friend was upset that a high school teacher ‘only’ took an hour to complete the recommendation for his daughter. I was shocked that a teacher could take an hour per student! If 20 students asked for recs (and I’m sure AP teachers get asked for a lot more than 20), that’s 20 hours, usually in Sept/Oct, plus the teacher has other obligations (and maybe even a personal life?). My friend was a prof at a med school and thought the recs should take 3-4 hours. EACH! The teachers in public schools get paid to teach; writing recs is extra work they don’t get paid extra for.

My sister teaches 5th grade in a public school. Even she gets asked to write recs for kids trying to get into specialty programs for middle school. For her the letters take no time at all (she loves to write them) but for other teachers writing a one page letter can take an hour and still not be clear. Twenty-seven kids all needing recs at the same time (early January)? It’s a lot of extra work.

I’m sure the AP lang teachers have a format and can crank them out, but they become rote and I’m sure the AO’s also feel like they are reading the same letter over and over.

I saw a few letters written by my daughter’s teachers and I was unimpressed with the writing and grammar on most of them (can ANYONE in the world use the word ‘myself’ correctly?). I was happy the GCs just checked boxes on a form and attached a letter that said here are the transcripts, the info on the senior class, and that 'this student is outstanding" (which I’m sure they took from class rank more than actually knowing the students).





I have written a number of LoR’s for employees (paralegals and analysts) for law school and business school. To craft a decent personalized LoR took me 2 to 3 hours. I took each positive attribute I wanted to convey and pointed to a real world anecdote that demonstrated the attribute. I also had to construct a flow as many of the letters also aimed to provide a sense of growth and development. If teachers are only taking an hour, they are either super fast essayists or they are working off a template.

It takes me at least an hour to write an interview report, and I have my own template for that.