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Nov. 1, 2019, 1:48 p.m. | By Joy Xu | 1 year, 6 months ago

An inside look into how teachers and counselors write college recommendations

With the early round of college applications due Friday, the stress has officially began. Students attempt to perfect every aspect of their application before clicking "submit," but one thing is out of their control: teacher and counselor recommendations. These recommendation letters provide admission officers with an outside perspective of a student and how they interact with classmates and approach learning.

Photo: College teacher recommendation form (courtesy of Sydney Hastings-Wilkins).

So what exactly goes into writing a college recommendation? With the mounting importance of such a letter, every teacher has a different approach to writing the best college recommendation possible. Biology teacher Elizabeth Duval likes to write the bulk of a letter in one sitting and then edit it later. “I work sometimes with music, sometimes with a show I have seen 1000 times on Netflix that I can ignore, but I like to have background noise,” Duval says.

Surprisingly, teachers stress over recommendations just as much as students. They feel a lot of pressure to showcase the qualities of each unique individual and sell a student to a college. “How are you going to honestly present these [qualities] of a student?” social studies teacher Anne Manuel asks. “Sometimes I don’t have the vocabulary to describe how wonderful this kid is. Once I reach a block like that, I will stop and come back to it, maybe three days later."

This leaves one question: Who should a student ask to write their letter? When deciding who will write the best recommendation, students must consider which teachers have seen their personal growth in character and/or academics. If possible, a good teacher to ask would be someone one has had both as an underclassman and an upperclassmen. This way, teachers can craft a more dynamic recommendation, highlighting a student's improvement throughout high school.

English teacher Michael Horne writes his recommendation letters to always present an honest and fair representation of that particular student. “It’s something you put your name on, so it has to be something you stand behind. Every teacher is trying to celebrate the accomplishments and strides made in class,” Horne says.  

Teachers also give students a say in their college recommendation letter—to an extent. “I give out a questionnaire where I ask students what they want me to emphasize to colleges. However, I try not to write about activities outside of the classroom that I am not involved in. If I’m not involved in it, why would I talk about it?” Duval says. 

In contrast with teachers, counselor recommendations are even more unpredictable. Students are assigned a counselor when entering Blair who will write their recommendation. At a big school like Blair, it can be a challenge to get to know your counselor personally.  

Blair counselor Kirk Simms writes recommendations for seniors with last names Bm to C. This includes 62 seniors, 55 of whom he will end up writing a recommendation for. In the beginning of senior year and end of junior year, students tell counselors about themselves through a Trailblazer packet, which contains a senior brag sheet, parent questionnaire and resume. Simms also recommends students to check in with their counselor roughly twice a month to discuss courses or grade reports.

Even with the sheer number of letters to write, Simms is proud of getting to know each senior personally. “I take pride in writing each of them a good letter to sell them to the university,” Simms says.

Despite the extra work and time college recommendations require every fall, teachers ultimately use recommendations to help students along on their path to higher education. This college application season, instead of thinking of teacher recommendations as an uncontrollable, intimidating factor, think of it as a way to show colleges another dimension of personality.

Last updated: Nov. 1, 2019, 1:49 p.m.

Tags: College applications teacher recommendations

Joy Xu. Hi! My name is Joy, and I'm the News Editor. Aside from writing articles, I enjoy playing violin for pit orchestra and making desserts for my friends and family. During the school year, I run Blair's DECA club, and I participate in many business-related activities. More »

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