Updated: Feb 22
[This blog entry was originally published in The South Pasadenan on 2/27/2019.]
As a former full-time public school teacher, I’m going to reveal something from my first teaching year that I know I’m supposed to keep to myself. It’s the moment a high school senior asked me to write his college recommendation, and what happened next.
His recommendation was the first letter I would write for a student. The student was energetic, loved to learn, was always first to raise his hand, and often struggled to articulate himself when he did -- at least, within a reasonable amount of time -- and, of course he did: This student was on the “beyond functional” side of the autism spectrum. He belonged at an excellent, rigorous university that would also support him with the social-emotional needs that would inevitably come up for him. I knew all these words and had them ready, so I wrote them down the same day in a first-draft letter of recommendation.
On Monday, I reread the letter. It was, objectively, garbage. Having all the precise words for this special student -- absolutely true, valid, and observed with patience -- mostly gave the impression that the student was a huge hassle to have in the classroom. Agh! Not even close to what I’d been going for.
I went to my colleague (25+ years teaching experience) who led the Spanish program, and I asked her for support. I didn’t want to let this student down. Almost as if she’d been asked before, Señora was quick to help. She flipped out her USB drive, plugged it into my laptop, and uploaded five MS Word docs from a folder called TEMPLATES ALL. In order, the file names were “meh1,” “meh2,” “good,” “great,” and “best in my career.”
She explained the system: Every student fits into one of the five categories, the student’s name goes into the series of blanks on the template, and the teacher takes extra-special care to make sure the names don’t get switched or messed up. One of the paragraphs on each template always had a section for the teacher to rattle off the student’s school and community activities; there was another section for generic adjectives like “caring” and “organized”; and there was a little area for special comments if the teacher deemed any worth mentioning. As long as I had the student’s resume and could vaguely remember their performance and personality, Señora told me I could print and sign the letter in five to ten minutes.
I played around with different iterations of my autistic student’s letter for a few weeks, but in the end I used Señora’s template. I felt guilty doing it because it stood in such marked contrast with how I had imagined my favorite teachers crafting my own recommendation letters when I was a high school senior working toward my dreams. But, as a first-year teacher, I knew the template letter (“best I’ve encountered in my career”) was the best version of a teacher recommendation this student could get from me at that time.
If it seems to you like my story has an unhappy ending, please keep reading.
Now, as a college counselor in 2019 looking forward to the Class of 2020’s college admission year, I use my experience to advise students how they can get the best recommendations out of their teachers -- their teachers who are, like me, human beings trying to do their best.
Looking back to the experience with my autistic student, I would give him this advice:
In terms of timing, start the conversation casually with your 11th grade teachers -- don’t use 10th or 12th grade teachers -- in May of your junior year. Let them know you will follow up in September, and then do that.
Choose your recommenders wisely. First-year teachers and others without much rec-writing experience are not yet likely to know how to write amazing letters, no matter how much they might want to.
When you ask the teacher, choose your words carefully. “Could you write me a letter this year for The University of Maryland?” (what the student asked me) is an entirely different question than the one I now usually recommend, which is “Would you feel comfortable writing me a strong recommendation by the November 1st deadline?” You want your teacher to have a way out of this if he wants to take it.
Remember: Unless your teachers institute an application or lottery process to limit the letters they have to write (and I talk through those scenarios with my students quite often) your teacher has a LOT of letters to get through, and will almost certainly be writing many of them during winter break. It is both kind and wise for you to help them write your letter! Prepare a one-sheet resource for your teacher and give him both a physical and electronic copy of it when you ask for your recommendation in September. If you do it right, the teacher should be able to literally, seriously just copy-paste words, phrases, and even whole sentences into the letter. More about this in the next few items.
Feed the teacher only the items you want him to put in the letter, which is to say, leave off anything that shows up elsewhere in your application: extracurricular activities, test scores, GPA, etc. Instead, think about what isn’t making it onto your main application. What if the teacher mentioned, for example, some family context that shines light on your performance in the class? Or painted a clear picture of what it looks like to see you on your best day in his classroom?
Write your one-sheet in such a way that it requires the teacher to junk his templates. The best recommendations tell stories. As an example, you could write a few sentences about an ethical dilemma you had in class, one that he might not have known about. It’s quite okay that he didn’t actually see it, because great stories don’t have to happen in situations with the teacher present. Imagine the wonderful recommendation where, for example, a physics teacher describes how a student applied his knowledge of convex/concave mirrors to make the parking garage safer at his mom’s workplace. The teacher would only have been able to write this after seeing it in your one-sheet.
Give your teacher plenty of chances to quote you. Feel free to get creative about how you give him these words, but do make sure they’re in writing.
Save your best work throughout the semester in a folder, and keep it safe. When it comes time to request a teacher recommendation, give the teacher physical copies of your work from different times in the school year.
Review, revise, review, revise, review, revise. When you’re sick of looking at it and the words blur together, ask someone you trust to look it.
Lastly, use your people resources to give you extra input and feedback. Ask your school counselor for their perspective on your teacher recommendation plan. Depending on how thinly stretched they are, the school counselor may be more or less helpful than you need. Have a running list on your phone of other people whom you trust to give you feedback: successful friends, mentors, family friends, or a college counselor.
Ultimately, the student from my first teaching year was accepted to his favorite university. But he would have gotten a substantially stronger and more personalized letter from me if he had known how to help me get him there!
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Robert Powers (M.A. Johns Hopkins) is the college consultant at College Torch. He is an expert in colleges and the college admissions process. Parents, join his private Facebook group for Parents of College-Bound Students.