I would estimate that I have written almost 500 letters of recommendations for my students over the past 13 years of teaching at the college level. I love doing it. It is something that in a way ties me to said student and where they might wind up. It also means that the person who asked me to do it trusted me and was interested in having me be one of the voices to get them to their graduate degree or job.
As an adjunct, I have sometimes had the pleasure of teaching students more than once; if the schedule worked out and the courses I taught were needed by the students, they often said they picked me on purpose. No matter what, I am a fair adjunct. I present information from the text and information from real life and tie it together as best as I can. As I prepare to get back into the college classroom this semester and potentially also teach virtually this semester and beyond, I wanted to write about college recommendation letters for the younger group (although this advice also applies to the recommendation letters for grad school and jobs that I have been writing over the past 13 years).
For my high school readers (or their parents), you should have an idea as to who will be your "recommenders" for your college applications. Who is your favorite teacher(s)? Who knows you best? Who can write about you in glowing terms and get the attention of the application reviewers in a good way?
Something you should know is that you should have drafts of your recommendation letters- some teachers/recommenders will love to see it; some will say they do not need it. Have it anyway. Think about what said teacher knows most about you and what you have done that has made you stand out (in a good way) in the class. Did you start Italian in Freshman year without understanding anything and now as a Senior can speak and write it? Did you do an awesome science project that won some medals and maybe was entered into a larger science fair?
Also think outside the box on recommenders - have you had a job through high school? Did you work in an office or even a fast food place; would one of your manager be willing to write you a letter of recommendation?
I have been reading lately about certain school districts in California where students are just killing it and not getting in to their dream schools – know the balance – what is your dream school? Do you have other schools you would also love? How did you decide what your dream school is? Much like finding a career that fits you, the school you love most have a culture that fits with you – maybe it is the best school for XYZ major – and you have always known you wanted to study XYZ major. Something to think about is how much you will change from 18 as a new HS grad to even 20 and in middle of college.
My whole young life, for instance, I wanted to be a child psychologist. I enrolled at St John’s University in 1994 as a Psychology major. By the middle of my first semester, I no longer wanted to be a child psychologist. I just was not interested in the career path, the schooling and the courses. I guess I am lucky I figured this out so quickly. I took interest testing, did research and found that Marketing was the degree that most made sense for me. I switched to Marketing and loved every second of it and find myself now using so much marketing background and lessons as I run my own business.
So draft up your own letters of recommendations, highlight what made you stand out in those classes or jobs and share it with the person you are interested in having write your letter. Tell them that you prepared something in draft form for them to potentially build off of or chose to not use but that you would like to share it. I am sure most recommenders would be interested in seeing what you have written.
For me, as an adjunct, I know most of my students for only 10-12 weeks across a semester so it is always preferred that they draft something and provide me with their resume so I can then build an awesome letter. For you younger students, you have maybe a 2-4 year relationship with said teachers and they have the idea already of what to write for you.
Something I never thought about was in utilizing my course work as a high school student to highlight and differentiate myself. At my high school, as freshman, we were pushed to do this major interdisciplinary project about different cultures and times that was so huge and at the time so boring – it was something we all dreaded, we all wanted to quit but in the end, we made real amazing research and projects that could have been showcased in a museum. I am sure we did more of that through our time at school but I did not highlight or recognize how important those projects would be to a university looking at my application. Do not make the same mistake. I am sure you are now doing even more amazing things than I did more than 20 years ago in your high school programs – make sure you highlight those things in your essays, in your recommendation letters and to think about how it can apply to your future next step in your schooling.
What do you think about this application / recommendation advice? What would you include from your high school portfolio? Do you have a portfolio? I am including this video below that includes more information on my upcoming college readiness boot camp seminars. Happy Hunting!
Lisa Vento Nielsen