As students scramble for summer recs, teachers encourage other options

March 10, 2020 — by Andy Chen

Teachers urge students to seek internships and job opportunities to pursue their true interests, rather than apply to summer programs to boost their resumes.

With the prevalence of a competitive environment when applying to summer programs, students may be surprised to find that applying to summer programs hasn’t always been so exhausting — the number of students applying for these programs has only risen significantly in the last five years.

For chemistry teacher Kathryn Nakamatsu, the increasing demand for summer recommendation letters is a problem not just because of the stress it puts on her, but primarily because many students apply only to prestigious programs either for credit or to strengthen college applications.

“Over the years, I’ve seen a trend where students will apply to these summer programs for the wrong reasons,” Nakamatsu said. “There are some students who are really motivated and really enjoy what they do. For them, I completely support doing this, but I think it’s become more of a resume-boosting thing.”

This trend is a relatively new one. For most of Nakamatsu’s 13 years of teaching here, there were usually under 10 students asking her for one or two recommendations per year. Only within the last five years has this number drastically increased to approximately 15 to 20 students asking for three or more programs each, which she attributed to parental influences and peer pressure.

Additionally, Nakamatsu said she believes that colleges take advantage of the increasing number of students applying by establishing higher admissions prices. Even to residents of Saratoga, programs like Garcia Summer Program and the Research Mentorship Program (RMP) are expensive — Garcia costs $2,700 and RMP  $10,500,. Since high costs for admission have mostly become normalized, colleges can easily abuse the system to generate large profits.

To Nakamatsu, students often have the wrong mindset when applying to programs; they often complain about the effort necessary to write essays and secure transcripts, but many don’t realize that teachers often spend just as much of their time and effort — if not more — to help students with writing letters of recommendation.   

In the past, teachers were eager to help students with applying to prestigious summer programs, but with the increasing level of competitiveness for students involved in the process and a growth in the number of requests, many are having a harder time maintaining their enthusiasm.

Demand for letters of recommendation has increased so much that implementing restrictive policies on these letters feels necessary for many teachers, Nakamatsu said. Like many science teachers, Nakamatsu has limited the number of letters written per student to just three, but others such as physics teacher Kirk Davis have decided to refuse writing letters of recommendation for summer programs altogether.

“Several years ago, the science department found that the large majority of kids didn’t go to any of the summer programs [they applied to],” Davis said. “So they’re having us do all these letters of rec, which aren’t trivial — each program is slightly different for a lot of these — and the kids weren’t going; either they didn’t get in, or they decided it was too expensive, or they had something better to do. So to me, that was kind of a waste of time — I’m supposed to be teaching.”

Instead of applying to various summer programs, Nakamatsu encourages students to apply for internships or jobs, which she believes are more valuable alternatives.

“Not only do you earn money instead of paying for something, but you also work with the public,” she said. “I think a lot of students need that skill; you need to learn how to work as a team.”

For senior Albert Xiao, interning at ExXothermic Inc., a company specializing in audio streaming, was a valuable chance to explore his passions and potential future career.

Xiao was chosen as an intern from a pool of mostly college applicants. He worked full-time for 40 hours a week over the summer and part-time until the second semester of his junior year — in total, he made almost $4,000.

Despite the money Xiao earned, he said that the most valuable part of the job was the experience he gained through interacting with his peers and mentors.

“Talking with my two supervisors, hanging out with the other interns, gaining the technical skills [necessary] to succeed as an engineer — I think that these experiences are all unique to internships [and jobs],” Xiao said.

Nakamatsu urged students to pursue summer programs only if they’re truly interested in the subject.

“At the end of the day, you should pursue whatever you’re passionate about; don’t let others pressure you into doing something you don’t want to do,” Nakamatsu said. “If you’re passionate about coaching basketball, don’t apply for a science research program — volunteer to coach youth basketball.”