Teachers overwhelmed with letters of recommendation

Teacher Cindy Lui working on letters of recommendation through the Common App website (Photo: Cohen Ferrari, The Puma Prensa)

By Cohen Ferrari, Sports Editor

Until the Nov. 1 early action deadline for most colleges passed, the top of Maria Carrillo High School English teacher James Hart’s website read, “I’m sorry to say, but I’ve got to close this application for recommendations until after November 1st. I will not have enough time to do more than the number I’ve already committed to until after that date.” The bold blue font relayed an unfortunate message whose roots are felt by teachers and counselors alike at MCHS: They are overwhelmed by the large number of requests for letters of recommendation.

It is currently the time of year when high school seniors all across the nation are applying to college. So much time and effort is put forth by students to build the best applicant profiles they can, and the last step for many is obtaining a letter of recommendation. These letters are traditionally written by teachers and/or counselors that tell colleges why the student is special and worthy of admittance. Even with letters of recommendation being optional or blatantly not accepted at many universities, MCHS teachers still seem to feel their weight for the 2022-23 application year.

Although most universities will take optional letters of recommendation, some require them for admissions, like the University of Colorado Boulder. “It’s helpful to us to hear from someone in your academic environment about who you are and how you contribute to the classroom. Through this letter, we are able to glean more about your strengths, goals and character,” said the CU Boulder admissions webpage. These schools use the letters as part of a “holistic review process” so that they can learn more about students than what just the numbers say, and letters of recommendation provide    an opportunity for someone in your academic environment to speak honestly about your character from an outside perspective. 

While recommendations are a great way for schools to see more of what makes a student unique, they have proven to give the MCHS staff a collective headache when application season rolls around. Even though it is not in their job description and they do not get any allocated time to work on letters of recommendation, lots of teachers on campus are happy to graciously write them for students in their free time. The issue, though, is when the numbers start to add up.

“When I have around 30 letters of recommendation to write this year with each taking anywhere from 30 minutes to well over an hour, it can get quite overwhelming,” said Mr. Hart. “I want to write one for every student that needs it, but there was a point where I looked at how many I had to write, saw that there was no way I would be able to complete any more than what I had already, and just had to cut it off,” Mr. Hart said. The sheer volume of the recommendations can also affect how each one is written, since more letters may mean each one gets slightly less attention. “When I have to write so many before specific deadlines, the quality of each letter can drop as the number of letters increases,” said Mr. Hart.

Another concern of the teaching staff is how allocating extra time for writing letters of recommendation can affect other areas of their job. “When the recommendation deadlines come around, I have to put off grading to make time. Some students ask why they don’t have grades put in for certain assignments around early November, and I say that’s because so many applications are due,” said Cindy Lui, math teacher at MCHS.

For each student, teachers and counselors use the Student Profile, a form submitted by students where they write in detail about their lives and endeavors both on and off campus. For MCHS staff who write recommendations, the student profile is a way for them to see the side of their students that is not always reflected in the classroom, allowing them to write a well-rounded recommendation.

Those who get the most use out of the profile, though, are the counselors. With just five counselors representing over 1,500 students, each counselor has less of a close relationship with each student on average than teachers do with theirs. This can affect the writing process, as the counselors have to scour the student profile for things to write about. 

In addition, counselors have to fill out school reports of students’ academic histories to each school with their recommendations, which eats up even more time. “Most counselors find themselves with around 20 recommendations and school reports to fill out, which can take anywhere from an hour to over two hours for each recommendation,” said Ellisa Beamish, an MCHS counselor. 

Although the recommendation process is by no means an easy one, as long as students are aware of the time and sacrifice the MCHS staff must make to write recommendations and can do their best to help streamline the process, counselors and teachers are usually more than happy to help their students take a very important step in their academic lives.

Beamish said, “If students are respectful, fill out their profiles thoroughly, and give us enough time, teachers and counselors are always ready to write recommendations and help students get to where they need to be on their educational paths.”

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