Students smooth out difficulties in recommendation letter process

September 13, 2016 — by Nidhi Jain and Olivia Lu

Junior discusses challenge of obtianing recommendation letters. 

Then-junior Puja Maheshwari stared at the daunting $25 senior packet in her hands after buying it from the guidance office in May, feeling a growing pit in her stomach as she eyed the words “humanities teacher” followed by a terrifyingly blank line.

Out of the six English and history teachers Maheshwari had been taught by so far, four had left either permanently or for an extended period of time, leaving only two teachers available to write her private university applications’ letters of recommendation. Of the remaining teachers, one taught a class she had little passion for, while the other one was so overwhelmed by recommendation requests that she had to conduct a lottery where students are randomly chosen to write letters for. Maheshwari did not “win” this lottery.

As a result, near the end of junior year, Maheshwari still lacked confirmation on a humanities letter of recommendation.

Every year, over 90 percent of SHS seniors require letters of recommendation from a humanities or STEM teacher — often both — for their applications to private colleges and out-of-state public colleges, according to statistics provided by theguidance office.

The process of receiving a recommendation letter may seem simple, but seniors like Maheshwari often find themselves in difficult situations where the number of students wanting letters of recommendation overwhelms the number of teachers who can write them.

Considering the fact that most private colleges state that a high-quality letter of recommendation from a non-elective teacher is integral for a quality application, these situations raise the question: How should those applying to private colleges try to get letters of recommendation?

After weeks filled with anxiety and panic, Maheshwari eventually approached English 11 H teacher Natasha Ritchie at the end of junior year for advice on her situation.

Ritchie, in response, told Maheshwari that asking a senior teacher and informing them in the beginning of the year of her recommendation letter request would be the best option. This way, the teacher would pay special attention and take notes on Maheshwari.

“That works out for me because all the places where I am applying early on require one letter, so for those places, I’ll only be submitting my STEM recommendation,” Maheshwari said.

While the process seems incredibly hectic for students like Maheshwari, the dilemma is equally bad for teachers, as many eventually write about a total of 35 time-consuming letters each year.

“In a school like Saratoga where so many students are college-bound, it becomes an incredible burden on teachers,” Ritchie said. “It's a pretty big tension between not wanting to fall behind [with letters of recommendation] and getting enough grading and current students’ work done.”

Especially because teachers like Ritchie spend part of their summers writing letters, it is important for juniors to ask their teachers for letters before junior year ends. By thinking ahead,  students can avoid spending the fall of their senior year frantically searching for teachers to write their letters.

According to Maheshwari, some situations, like hers, are simply a case of bad luck, and asking a teacher of seniors ends up being the sole solution.

However, guidance counselor Alinna Satake emphasizes that students should enter teachers’ lottery system, be flexible enough ask their sophomore and senior year teachers for recommendations, and see their guidance counselors at Wednesday office hours or materials on the school website for maximum support.