There is an old adage in admissions offices that says, "the thicker the folder, the thicker the student."

If you've gone on any campus tours and information sessions, you've probably heard about the student who topped the charts by sending in 24 letters of recommendation. Gasps are uttered from an audience full of prospective applicants and nervous parents.

Most of us wonder who even knows 24 people they'd ask to write a letter of recommendation. And that is actually the heart of the message here. 1) Students should be the ones asking, not parents; and 2) the recommenders should be people who truly know the student, i.e., not the neighbor of a friend's cousin who once worked in the admissions office.

> What doesn't work so well?

Families who try to grease the wheels of admission by submitting multiple well-placed letters of recommendation frequently end up doing a disservice to the student. This thought of "putting in a good word" for someone dates back to days when guidance counselors at prep schools discussed and negotiated which colleges would accept which students.

It isn't your father's college admissions process any longer. In fact, when families insist that someone "important" contact the admissions office or write a letter on behalf of a student they don't know, it is more likely to hurt than to help.

The name-dropping, "we've got connections" route is risky because you don't know the personality of the first reader. This "gatekeeper" will frequently be a recent graduate in his or her first job and he or she will probably not look very kindly at that kind of pandering where people are trying to muscle their way into their college.

Here's a thought from a former admissions staff person: "I used to see so many political figures write letters of recommendation for kids they had never met. That told me that their parents had made a donation to their last campaign. I would rather have a letter from the manager at a supermarket who can tell me how dependable, honest and supportive a student might be.

"We are looking for insights, not rhetoric. We appreciate any description of the human side. When a letter indicates 'I don't really know this kid, but, genetics being what they are, her/his parents are wonderful...' doesn't make a sale."

> So what do they want?

If specific people can add something significant about the applicant that the college would not otherwise know, that can help. Admissions committees generally have limited time to spend on each folder, and when a student with too many letters of recommendation is presented, it actually takes time away from a more thoughtful consideration of the student.

Admissions offices are most interested in getting recommendations from individuals who know the students and can speak about the student's personality and specific characteristics that make them a viable candidate.

Parents also need to question the concept of "pulling out all the stops" and try to understand what these efforts are communicating to their child. Often, students walk away thinking their parents don't believe in them and that they're not good enough to get in on their own merits. In the end, it is not who signs the letter, but what the letter says about the student.

Lee Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte, N.C. For more information, visit