In the days following Spring Break, teachers receive hundreds of requests for letters of recommendation from juniors who are applying to college soon. However, even before April, choosing which teachers to ask is a recurring question on many juniors’ minds.
There is a general consensus among admissions officers about the importance of teacher recommendation letters in the admission process. In a 2009 Q&A, Harvard University Dean of Admissions William R. Fitzsimmons said, “Recommendations can help us to see well beyond test scores, grades and other credentials, and can illuminate such personal qualities as character and leadership as well as intellectual curiosity, creativity, and love of learning. Along with essays, interviews, and other materials in the application, recommendations can offer evidence of an applicant’s potential to make a significant difference to a college community and beyond.”
Similarly, the admissions dean at the University of Michigan Law School said, “A really detailed and supportive letter can absolutely set the tone for an application. The letter that takes the time to give an outsider’s perspective on your story, laying out your strengths in copious detail and acknowledging your weaknesses while simultaneously explaining why those weaknesses ought not to be fatal? That letter is a joy to read and very hard to ignore.”
M-A’s policy prohibits students from asking for letters and teachers from accepting them before spring break, which Shared Decision-Making Site Council (SDMSC) Chair and film teacher John Giambruno explained allows students to spend more time with teachers before they decide who they want to write their letter.
M-A does not require teachers to write letters of recommendation. However, according to US History teacher Jason Knowles, “The M-A Foundation pays us $20 or $25 per letter that we’re asked to write to supplement our time.”
Knowles explained what he includes in his letters of recommendation. He said, “I will write about what I’ve seen from them, and then I will also talk about their personal traits, like their work ethic, and also community service or clubs they’ve been involved in, to give colleges a total view of the student beyond just their academics.”
AP Chemistry teacher Matthew Sandora said, “As long as you’re always showing effort and trying to improve yourself or get extra help, then I would say that no, the grades don’t matter for me to write your letter.” Both Sandora and Knowles stated that they have never declined a student before.
Although one would think the process may be tedious, many teachers actually find writing letters enjoyable. Sandora said, “As a teacher, one of your responsibilities is to help students get to college, and I’m always honored when people ask me because it makes me feel like they liked the class and they enjoy being with me.”
Other teachers have a cap on how many letters they write. AP Biology teacher Patrick Roisen said that he has often had to turn down about half the students who ask. He explained, “I’ve come to realize that in order to write a good letter of recommendation, I need to have a unique take on a kid that will make them stand out. There’s some kids that get good grades in the class, but for whatever reason, I don’t have an unusual anecdote or insight into who they are to make them stand out. I have to think, ‘How is this kid unique?’ Not the best, but the most unique.” He said, “I typically write between 15-20 letters and it usually takes me between four to ten hours to ultimately write a letter for one kid. So all of about 100 hours.”
Sandora and Knowles usually spend half an hour on each letter, with Sandora writing about 15-20 letters per year and Knowles writing about 10 letters.
Giambruno explained the pressure of having to write good letters of recommendation, saying, “If I have 10 people asking me for a letter of rec, probably one out of those 10 is going to be super important. I don’t know which one that is. So then the pressure is on for me to write 10 really good letters of rec even though probably nine of them are going to get completely ignored or glanced at.”
For Roisen, “Writing letters can be exhausting sometimes, especially as deadlines approach, because sometimes the deadlines are when I’m doing some of my most intense labs and such. It’s stressful.”
Letters of recommendation are a very controversial topic in SDMSC meetings. Giambruno said, “The volume of requests has definitely increased as more students increase their volume of where they’re applying to and as schools get more competitive.” He said, “I feel like letters of recommendation are losing some meaning because of the sheer volume of how many letters are being written. When I’m writing my letters. I’m like, ‘Are these even being read?’”
Giambruno stated that teachers often complain about a recent, significant change in this process: early admission, for which letters are due on November 1st. He said, “I wish that for early decision they didn’t want letters of rec. It seems like we have to do it earlier and earlier. October is the crunch– the middle of the school year. You’re just getting in a groove and then you have to stop and write 10 letters. So that’s 10 hours out of your week on top of your 40-hour work week.” He added, “There’s usually a weekend where teachers are coming back, and all they say they did was write letters.”
Giambruno reported that he knows teachers who start the writing process in the summer, which further lengthens the process.
“I think what would help teachers is a thank-you-for-the-letter from the universities. It would go miles,” said Giambruno.
Giambruno also mentioned the rewarding aspects of writing these letters. He said, “The students are very appreciative, which is nice. It’s a nice reflective process to remind you that you’re doing something important. If a student gets in and you feel like they were borderline getting in, you feel like you really contributed—and teachers like to help.”
He added, “It’s nice to see the stress from teachers a little bit because it shows how much and how many teachers care. If people are freaking out about it and getting overwhelmed by it, it’s because we want to help so many.”
Roisen emphasized teachers’ willingness to help, saying, “Most of us did not get into teaching for the vast quantities of money. We got into it because we like helping students learn.”
As for advice for students hoping for a letter of recommendation, Knowles said, “The most important thing is to be in constant communication with whatever teacher or teachers you’ve asked, because we’re busy.” He advised students to choose to ask “a teacher that you really relate to well, that knows your personality, your strengths, your weaknesses, rather than just a teacher in whose class you did well.”
He added, “Realize that if a teacher says no, it’s not a judgment of the student, it’s a judgment of how well the teacher can write a letter for that kid.”
Sandora advised, “Most teachers can recognize when people are being truthful, or whether you are being fake and just trying to kiss up, so just be yourself.”
Roisen suggests ways students can receive a good letter, saying, “Think about the teachers that have had a chance to see you, not necessarily at your best, but who’ve had a chance to see who the real you is. Learn not to be afraid to go in and talk to teachers. Follow up on something that might have been interesting in class that you wanted to know more. Go in and ask for help on assignments.”
As the demand for letters of recommendation skyrocket, students hoping to get a letter of rec should focus on creating close relationships with their teachers by being proactive and engaged. For more information about the college application process visit the College and Career Center in Pride Hall.