The five musts of college admission are the following: test scores (SAT or ACT), an essay(s), grades, a list of activities, and the teacher recommendation(s).
Although the teacher recommendation, which students usually waive seeing, might seem to be the most honest and detailed assessment of an applicant’s ability, but is it?
There are really four factors that can affect how much a teacher recommendation can help.
First, does the teacher write enough college recommendations to know what should be included? Many teachers from rural or small schools do not write many college recommendations. Those from poor schools do not usually write recommendations to selective colleges, do not usually interact with college admission people, and do not often, if ever, attend workshops teaching them recommendation writing skills as their districts cannot afford the professional training. Can these teachers’ recommendations compete with private schools or college prep academies where the students pay for teachers to be as competitive as they in gaining admission to college?
Second, a good recommendation takes time. It takes time to write, to think through, and to edit. Many teachers in large schools are so divided among large class loads, duties, and preparations, they do not have time to write excellent recommendations. Also, a teacher needs time with students to know them well enough to be detailed in their assessments. Again, in large schools teachers may only have a student for one semester or one year, may have little out-of-class time to spend with students, and may have such big classes that even class time does not allow close observation.
Third, some teachers write well and some do not, as is the case among many professionals. How is a student to know who is who? If a teacher is vague, does not write fluently, or cannot organize thoughts, his or her recommendation may not be clear or helpful. Students are often taking a shot in the dark asking a teacher who knows them well to write for them. Poor writing skills can cancel out what a student might expect as praise and support.
Last, each and every community, along with their schools and teachers, have a culture. Some in New England prize curiosity. Some in the South might see curiosity as impolite. How does a college weight these nuances in a recommendation where often teachers are communicating subtleties that may be prized by them but not by the culture of the college?
Many colleges are already making the SAT/ACT optional. Perhaps the same should be done with the teacher recommendation. But, until that change is made, here is some good advice to get the best teacher recommendation.
• Ask your guidance counselors which teacher might best write about you, as guidance counselors see the recommendations over the years written by teachers on staff.
• Provide a list of your activities, accomplishments, even character traits to help teachers remember you better and pick out details for their writing.
• Make sure you try to contact your teachers over your four years of high school on a personal level to develop a relationship. Talk to them after class or after school, find an activity with a teacher advisor, and interact in class with your teachers.