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All I Want for Christmas is ... A College Rec Letter

Wednesday, December 16, 2015  
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By Christina Mimms, SAIS

For many teachers, the holiday season will be filled with the usual activities of grading exams, enjoying staff parties, and one extra endeavor – college applications. 'Tis the season for writing the time-consuming recommendation letters, but there are many ways to manage the process to avoid overwhelming teachers who are already juggling busy schedules at a naturally hectic time of year.

At Westchester Country Day School in High Point, NC, Director of College Guidance Raegan Atkinson starts interacting with students when they are in 9th grade so that by their junior year, she knows them all fairly well. She starts talking more seriously about college with juniors and their parents early in the fall semester and hosts a workshop in August. Atkinson takes juniors on a college tour somewhere in the Southeast region, visiting five schools in three days. In the spring, she encourages juniors to write their essay for their common application form and to start work on any other essays. “We try to get them to work ahead and use their spring and summer to get things done,” Atkinson said. “Some kids are taking APs and other hard classes, and fall is so busy.”

In the students’ junior year, Atkinson also starts drafting a personal recommendation letter for each student. In late spring and early fall, two to three teachers write letters for each student; that is one area which Atkinson intends to manage differently in the future. “This year, two teachers got overloaded with recs and were very stressed,” she said. “I had to get a sub for a day for one teacher so she could work on recs. Next year we will distribute the requests more evenly among teachers.”

At Jackson Preparatory School in Jackson, MS, there are also "favorite" teachers who are asked to write numerous recommendation letters while other teachers may write only one or two per year, according to Jeanne Marie Peet, director of college counseling. “The English teachers are asked the most, some writing 15 to 20 recommendations per year,” she said. “I do try to guide the students into asking other teachers when I know that certain teachers are getting overloaded.”

Because many of Jackson Prep’s 124 seniors go to college in-state, they do not need recommendation letters for their applications. That is also the case for Westchester seniors, who have many good options for college in North Carolina; however, Atkinson makes sure that all students have their letters in case they need them for scholarship applications or want to send them with in-state paperwork anyway. 

Working ahead definitely helps the overall application process to avoid stressing anyone out. At Westchester, nearly all recommendations and applications were completed by Dec. 1, thereby leaving Atkinson more time in the second semester to help students source scholarships and financial aid. Last year, Westchester’s 23 seniors earned $3 million in various scholarships and awards. This year’s class of 36 seniors holds impressive GPAs and SAT scores, and many students are looking out of state for colleges.

At Greater Atlanta Christian School (GACS) in Norcross, GA, the 167 seniors cast a wide net with their college applications, covering the east and west coasts, Texas and a few schools in the Midwest and outside the U.S. While many take advantage of in-state scholarship programs, others seek special-interest opportunities at various schools. “A large number of our students apply to and are accepted to the state’s top universities, but our families and students feel that they have very strong options that provide competitive scholarship opportunities, keeping even private school pricing competitive,” said Lori Davis, senior high counseling chair and college and guidance counselor at GACS.

Because she has so many students to assist with college placement, Davis also backs up a lot of the application work into the junior year. Each senior acquires two formal letters of recommendation from junior year academic teachers and two sets of comments which may be used as quotes in the counselor’s letter of recommendation to support excellence academically, socially, or personally. In a few cases, specific applications will require input from specific teachers. Students ask their teachers for letters in the spring of their junior year, giving teachers nearly six months to complete the recommendations. “It is not unusual for a few teachers to be bombarded with requests, but our teachers have complete control over how many students they agree to support and which students they agree to support,” Davis said.

She and her team manage all of the application work in the Naviance system, which involves journaling, document storage, self-exploration and planning tools, an application manager, and family connections resources.

While managing applications is one piece of the college admissions puzzle, the content of a recommendation letter is equally important to meeting the deadline for application. Universities are looking for interesting, personalized stories about their applicants and students are looking for teachers who can deliver those messages for them. Some teachers have different policies about how many letters they will write, or whom they will write for. Click here to read from the perspectives of both a student and a university about the power of a recommendation.

A teacher’s recommendation can carry significant weight for a student’s application to college. If a student is somewhat “on the fence” with a university’s acceptance or with receiving a scholarship, a powerful letter could make all the difference.



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