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The Saratoga Falcon

The Saratoga Falcon

A teacher perspective on college recommendation letters

The annual frenzy of finishing college applications involves more than just writing essays. One of the most important parts of these applications is the teacher recommendation letters, which provides admission officers a holistic view of a student in a classroom environment.

Seniors usually ask their junior or senior year core curriculum teachers to write recommendation letters for them. Most private colleges look for one teacher from the math or science field and one from an English, social studies or foreign language teacher. Other schools, like the UCs, do not ask for recommendation letters.

Nonetheless, teachers are flooded with college recommendation letter requests in spring and early October.

“I tell my students that I need to know by Aug. 1 if they want to have a letter,” Honors and AP Chemistry teacher Kathy Nakamatsu said.

A few teachers have so many requests that they decide to narrow down the number of students who they will write recommendation letters for by holding a lottery.

“I hold a lottery because I get asked to write a lot of letters, and I can only write so many in one year,” math teacher Michele Drouin said. “There is just no time in the day to do so many.”
Seniors also have to turn in packets into the office that contain envelopes listing which colleges the student is planning on applying to and when the recommendation letters are due for each college. These packets also include a questionnaire for students to fill out that provides information to the teachers about the student.

These envelopes are in turn handed to the teachers by the guidance office usually a month before the due date, but many times the office is able to give it to them even earlier.

“The turnover of the envelopes is pretty quick,” English teacher Suzanne Herzman said. “I’ve never worked in a school where the guidance department is so on top of it.”

Teachers expect students to fill out these forms with as much detail as possible and many anecdotes to make it easier for them to write adequate letters.

“The questionnaires really bring me into the moment and jog my memory,” Herzman said.
Teachers are interested in vividly remembering what the student was most proud of and how they grew by overcoming specific challenges.

But the answers to these questions do more than just tell a story based the content that is written. Some teachers look at them at a much deeper level.

“It is a really interesting way to see what the students got out of the year,” Herzman said.
AP US History and World Geography teacher Matt Torrens uses the questionnaire in a different way.
“I have perceptions of the student, and it is always interesting to hear what their perceptions of themselves in my class are,” Torrens said.

Torrens incorporates his own experiences with those he reads and pays close attention to many of the words that the students use in answering the questions.

“It’s always interesting to compare our experiences because I will sometimes forget the experience that is most important to them, and I’ll remember an experience that they don’t even mention,” Torrens said.

Teachers many times talk about specific students they have in their classes, and share anecdotes about them. But there are mixed opinions about whether these stories should be incorporated into the letters the teachers write for students.

Herzman, for one, has used stories about what she hears from her colleagues to enhance recommendation letters of students. Other teachers, including Torrens and math teacher Audrey Warmuth, however, do not feel the need to do so.

“Whatever is said between teachers tends to usually just reinforce what you already know about the student. And most students aren’t one way in one class and something completely different in another class,” Warmuth said.

Despite all the information that is given to the teachers, it is challenging to write a well written recommendation letter.

“I know what I want to say in my mind. I know what I think about the student and know about the student. But it is difficult to put that down in an elegant and clear form,” Warmuth said.
Nonetheless, teachers find the entire process very rewarding and put their heart and soul into writing thoughtful letters of recommendation each year, despite the fact that they have to put hours of their personal time on weekends and evenings to write these letters.

“It’s time consuming. It’s difficult, but it is really enjoyable,” Torrens said. “I like to remind myself of some of the fun interactions I have had with these kids.”

After the teachers write their recommendation letters, they upload it to Naviance to be sent out to colleges. Teachers are told not to share the letters with anyone, although many save them in case the guidance office asks for a similar recommendation letter for scholarships.

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