HomeNewsCHS teachers unravel key components of recommendation letters

CHS teachers unravel key components of recommendation letters

Published Dec. 15, 2022

By MAGGIE JOHNSTON

In the midst of college application season, most student applicants are required to have two to three letters of recommendation and are grappling with two questions: “Who should I ask?” and “What makes a strong letter?”

Barring California State Universities and the University of California, most schools require applicants to submit letters of recommendation. The Common Application, a platform that more than 900 universities utilize as a means of simplifying a student’s application process, allows for three main types of recommenders: counselor, teacher and other–other recommenders can consist of coaches, employers, art teachers and everything in between. 

Although it depends on the school and the requirements, this gives a student the opportunity to have multiple adults vouch for them in different sectors of their life. Yet in order to have a strong recommender, teachers ask that students make the effort to create meaningful relationships and connections. 

Art teacher Steven Russell has already written more letters than usual this year and not just for students applying to art programs. 

“My goal is to give the reader a more holistic picture of the person,” explains Russell. “Letters of recommendation are a good reflection on a teacher’s relationship with a certain student.”

French teacher Suzanne Marden similarly does not focus her letters on one characteristic of a person, but on many. 

“It is important to show that I know the person, not just as a student, but as a human being,” Marden comments. “Giving evidence of their personality will show how this student can be a positive contribution to their next step.” 

This in-depth view of a student is also what CHS counselor Yesel VonRuden aims for with her 30 to 40 senior students that each require a letter.

“I like to focus my letters on a few different things,” VonRuden says. “The outstanding qualities a student has, academic accomplishments they may have and their readiness for college, both rigor-wise and socially.”

The hardest letter to write, from the counselor’s perspective, is about a student who does not do much around campus. The counselor letter provides a school-wide picture of the student, while teachers have a day-to-day view in a classroom setting, which allows for separate perspectives on the given student.

“I want to prove to the school that they are getting someone really special,” says Jason Maas-Baldwin, who teaches two AP science courses. “Usually, it’s a student’s unique character traits, but I have also written about outstanding academic qualities too.”

(courtesy of PUBLIC DOMAIN VECTORS)

While all letters aim to represent the student in a positive way, they may differ from academic teachers to elective teachers. 

“Being an elective teacher means that I am typically considered an other recommender on the Common Application,” explains Russell. “My letters are typically supplemental and related to their character rather than academics or class work.”

Similarly, teachers who are involved in student groups and organizations have a unique view of who the student is.

“Everybody that I am writing a letter for this year is either a present AP French student or has been an AP French student,” Marden observes. “Most of them are also Link Leaders, so I get to see them working together to help new students on campus.”

Some teachers may also choose to include anecdotes about a student to separate them from the thousands of other applicants the school may see. 

“The students I write letters for I have known for a few years and have a good relationship with them inside and outside of the classroom,” explains Maas-Baldwin, who writes roughly 30 letters of recommendation per year. “I aim to use anecdotes to show how that student is unique.” 

While it may be ideal for all applicants to have strong letters from adults that know them, turning down students is more common than one may think. Many teachers have had to turn away students when they either are not asked in a timely manner, have too much on their plate or do not have positive things to say about that given student. 

“I have turned down students who came to me for a letter,” Marden says. “I either didn’t feel like I could write a strong letter for the person due to a lack of a personal relationship with them or the fact that they would not like what I had to write about them.”

CHS instructors ask that students start this process early by making important connections prior to their senior year because these relationships require time and effort to develop. In terms of asking for letters, most teachers are more willing to write letters when the students are mindful of how much time it takes to write a strong letter. They are also more likely to write one if formally asked in person or through a letter of request.

Counselors and teachers take time to ensure that the letter will be helpful to the student going further, and they take this process seriously. They are more than willing to help if a student is as motivated and serious about their letters as the adult is, if not more. 

 

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