Signed, sealed, delivered: writing letters of recommendation

December 1, 2015 — by Daphne Liu, Olivia Lu and Melissa Magner

'Tis the season of college apps, and as application deadlines approach, teachers and counselors are putting the finishing touches on a key part of the application process: letters of recommendation.

‘Tis the season of anxious seniors, frantic parents and scrambling staff. Seniors clack away at their keyboards, parents pester their children about upcoming deadlines and staff members carry out their lesson plans as the thought of colleges gnaws at them.

In short, ‘tis the season of college apps, and as application deadlines approach, teachers and counselors are putting the finishing touches on a key part of the application process: letters of recommendation.

Letters in the application process

While many students see the college application process as a task reserved for first-semester seniors, it actually starts as early as mid or late spring of junior year.

Students begin the application process by choosing teachers to write their letters of recommendation, often early on at the requests of teachers. In fact, many teachers of juniors require students to submit letter requests by a certain date in the spring.

To do this, students must first find the application material requirements and type of recommendations specific to the schools they are applying to.

This varies from school to school; many (but not all) private schools ask for three letters — two teacher recommendations and an administrative report — while public schools such as the majority of the UCs and CSUs often do not require letters of recommendation. Some students may also opt to request for an extra, supplemental rec letter from another source who can provide information about them from outside the classroom.

The upward trend

Although teachers cannot write an unlimited number of recs, their letters are needed by the many. Out of the 331 students in this year’s senior class, a whopping 83 percent applied to at least one private school, and 67 percent applied for an early deadline; these are some of the highest numbers the guidance department has seen.

According to guidance counselor Alinna Satake, seniors apply to an average of 15 colleges, a number significantly higher than the seven to 10 that was common in the past.

More applications means a higher demand for letters of recommendation, creating a greater burden on all of those involved in the process: teachers, administrators and staff members.

For example, AP US History teacher Kim Anzalone is writing around 64 recommendation letters for seniors. This figure doesn’t include the scholarship or summer program recommendations that she also pens later in the year.

“Sometimes, to focus on the quality of the letter, I will take time off from work,” Anzalone said. “That way, I can focus solely on writing the best letters of recommendation that I can.”

Some teachers also choose to come in early during the summer in order to get a head start on writing letters. Because this is often for pay and allows teachers to dedicate free time to letter writing, it benefits them in multiple ways.

To accommodate the ever-increasing number of rec letter requests, many teachers have required interested students to fill out questionnaires before requesting a letter of recommendation. Those who still receive more requests than they can write for resort to a lottery system, where they randomly choose a number of students for whom they will write letters.

Allen said this system is “really fair” to both parties and that the teachers are doing a great service to students by writing the letters at all.

“It isn’t part of the teacher’s job description to write letters,” Allen said. “But those that do often have to choose a set number of students so they can maintain the quality in their letters. That way, it benefits both the teacher and the student.”

The guidance department has also done its part in attempting to not only lighten the load on teachers, but also take in as much information they can about the student so that the they can also write a quality letter of recommendation.

Seniors must turn in designated packets indicating which schools they need what recommendation letters for, and must gain approval from their guidance counselors before applying to the schools.

The internal packets, which include green sheets, a parent letter to the counselors and letters written by the student to the counselor, help the counselors write their letter of recommendation.

“Oftentimes the information from the [internal packet] will give us a better idea of who the student is when we write our letter,” Allen said. “In cases where a student may be more reserved, we can really find out a lot about them using a variety of sources.”

The packets also ensure that letters are written for only those who require them, and that information is not repeated within the student’s application.

This year, the guidance department has placed special limits on third supplemental letters. For example, only students applying to major in English or for a journalism program are allowed to request for a letter from journalism adviser Mike Tyler.

As a result these rules, a few students this year were denied a supplemental letter despite their involvement in extracurricular activities. Senior Kelly Xiao is one example; because she is not applying to a journalism program and was already receiving a green sheet from Tyler, she was unable to request a supplemental letter from him.

“If a teacher is willing to write an optional letter of recommendation for a student, then I don’t see why there’s a problem,” said Xiao, who is currently undeclared in her major. “But I can see why I wasn’t allowed to ask for an additional letter of recommendation [given my major].”

According to Allen, such restrictions on supplemental letters are also in place to help students’ applications suit the needs of universities themselves.

“Universities usually like to see letters from academic teachers rather than elective teachers,” Allen said. “Although students may show a great side of them in an elective class like journalism or band, letters from core academic classes allow the institutions to see what a student is like in an environment where they are presenting and participating in activities like Socratic Seminars and dialogues.”

The value of the letter

As the college application process looms in students’ minds, the value of letters of recommendation cannot be neglected.

Teachers use students’ responses to the questionnaires to characterize their strengths and personal evolution in their letters.

“It’s helpful when students give you supplemental information,” Anzalone said. “Students think we remember every little thing about them, and we’d like to, but we can’t.”

Because each student has different skills both in class and out of class, teachers attempt to highlight traits that make students stand out in their letter.

Contrary to popular belief, English teacher Amy Keys said, teachers and counselors do not “follow a single template.” What makes the job so tough is that they strive to make each letter unique.

“A grade doesn’t always capture the entirety of what a student was like or what they did,” Keys said. “[The grade] does not necessarily reflect the entirety of their growth and so I look at the letter of recommendation as an opportunity where I’m able to talk about what the student brings to the school in terms of curiosity, enthusiasm, creativity or compassion.” 

Universities, too, often use the letters as a way to look beyond simply the student’s GPA and assess the student’s attitude and interests.

According to Allen, schools like the University of Chicago place a great emphasis on students’ “vibrance” and participation in class.

“You could have a high GPA and perfect SAT scores, but if you stayed quiet in all of your classes, you may not be a good fit for [a certain type of] college,” Allen said.

Even STEM-focused universities like MIT favor a holistic approach, asking recommenders to look beyond grades and to include in their letters anecdotes that reveal students’ special talents, social skills and eagerness to take on a challenge. Because the MIT admissions staff reads over 20,000 applications annually, they “appreciate strong statements that [they will] remember,” according to the MIT Admissions website.

Ultimately, the goal of teachers in the college letter of recommendation process is to improve relationships with students and help them get into their dream colleges.

“[The recommendation letter process as a whole is rewarding because] you get to look back at a student’s work and reflect on their growth on the course of the year and remember how they learned and grew,” Keys said. “It also helps me think about what might work for students in the future and how I can become a better teacher for all of them.”