What’s in a Letter of Recommendation?
Credits: Georgia Murphy
Many high school students find the challenge of receiving a good recommendation letter daunting. Whether you’re a stressed-out junior or a paranoid freshman, receiving a good recommendation letter is often an important step in reaching collegiate goals, but the process to obtain one can be opaque. Let’s try and demystify it.
Most teachers and counselors request their students to fill out a brag sheet — a resumé of a student’s achievements and activities. The brag sheet helps teachers get a sense of the student beyond their grades and behavior in the classroom. Spanish teacher Maribel Jimeno said, “I don’t only talk about what he did in my class, but what kind of student he or she is as a whole. I can only get a sense of that through the brag sheet.”
Some teachers don’t use brag sheets, taking a different approach. AP Lang teacher Jan McGlennon sees brag sheets as “pointless,” believing that “what the college wants to know from teachers is how the student performed… in class.” Instead, Ms. McGlennon asks students to “[reflect] on the work that they’ve done in my class and what they’ve gained from it.”
Once the teacher has the information they need, they begin in the time-consuming process of actually writing the letters. Kathryn Moore, the counselor for the class of 2024 said, “Writing a thorough, quality letter takes time. Usually at least 30 minutes per letter.”
Ms. Jimeno said that the time it takes her varies but usually around “three, four hours.” Teachers want to show colleges the best version of their students. Writing a high-quality, descriptive letter can be difficult, and the number of letters teachers have to write only adds to the difficulty.
A teacher’s recommendation-letter workload depends on a myriad of factors, including whether they are a teacher or counselor and what subject they teach. Counselors must write letters for all 150 students in a grade.
Ms. McGlennon said, “Over the last three years I’ve written probably an average of 50 students each year. That’s sort of normal because I teach junior English, and a lot of colleges want an English teacher.”
Many teachers find that their familiarity with the student has a big effect on the time and effort it takes to write a letter. Ms. McGlennon said, “Some of them are really easy, when a student is very active in class and does a good job and makes themself known to me. It’s harder to write [if] I don’t really have a good sense of who they are.”
Students also notice how beneficial it is to build positive connections with adults in the SWW building. Katrina Tracy (‘23) said, “I was nervous, but I got positive responses” to asking for recommendations due to “good relationships with my teachers.”
Despite the systems in place to ensure students receive quality letters, some juniors have worries. “Asking is the part I am most stressed about,” Lily Turcotte-Keen (‘24) said. “First, I have no clue who would be a good person to ask. And then there’s the fact that they could just flat-out reject you to your face.”
For the most part, teachers and counselors enjoy writing letters for students they’ve known for a long time. Ms. Jimeno said, “I have students this year who I’ve had for four years in a row. I know them by heart. I know what they do. I know everything because they are like part of my family.” Ms. Jimeno noted that she doesn’t even need a brag sheet from these students.
On the other hand, having a minimal or adverse relationship with a teacher can have the opposite effect. Ms. McGlennon said, “I outright refused [to write a recommendation] once. This was a student I’d had for two years for Latin, and every single time he came into the classroom he borrowed a pencil and by the end of class every single day it was broken.” She explained that honesty and respect are incredibly important to her. “You don’t have to be a genius but you need to try.”
Counselors cannot refuse to write recommendations, but Ms. Moore said that “the quality and depth of a letter can vary based on what qualities the student has demonstrated and how much effort they put into providing information for the letter.”
Overall, adults at Walls seem to appreciate the effort a student gives above all else. “I have written letters for students who were not the top of my class but they were the ones who made the most effort,” Ms. Jimeno said. “I always write the best letters for them because I can see that there is an effort, there is a willingness to improve and to do well, and that’s the important thing.”