How College Applicants Can Get Recommendations Letters Amid Coronavirus

With SAT or ACT test scores for first-year college applicants no longer required by many universities due to the coronavirus pandemic, students’ attention is shifting to maximizing the effectiveness of their recommendation letters in order to stand out.

While new challenges of remote learning and disrupted school calendars have brought some distractions to teachers — who are adapting to a whole new way of working — students who act now and secure strong recommendations can seize the opportunity to amplify the letters’ effectiveness in their overall college application.

Now more than ever, teacher recommendations bring credibility and a nuanced perspective on which admissions officers can base their decisions, says Benjamin Schwartz, a former assistant director of admissions at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and co-founder of the Sage Experience leadership development program based in Ghana.

“Teacher recommendations have always been a critical component of the application, allowing us to understand a student’s academic and intellectual story behind the basic grades,” Schwartz wrote in an email. “Now with some schools and districts awarding Pass/Fail, and complicating factors in the lives of many students, the teacher recommendation only takes on even more importance for many applicants.”

[Read: How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation for College.]

The key to maximizing the effectiveness of teacher recommendations amid COVID-19 is inclusivity and connection, Schwartz says.

“I have always encouraged students to get to know their teachers. The teacher recommendation is a way for us to know that the student cares about more than grades and is ready to add thoughtful insights and contributions to the classroom and broader community,” he says.

Lauren Bayersdorfer, a math teacher in the Weehawken Township School District in New Jersey who specializes in teaching algebra and AP Calculus, says letters of recommendation provide admissions officers with insights into how an applicant will perform as a student and member of the college community.

“Although standardized tests are a way to see what a student has learned in content areas, it is very difficult for admissions officers to see what a student is truly like as a person,” Bayersdorfer wrote in an email. “Recommendation letters are always valuable in conveying that subjective and more personal perspective, but they are especially important this year, as meaningful relationships may (arguably) be more important than math standards.”

“Universities are able to get a more intimate understanding of a student as a whole person and their possible struggles during this time rather than just another applicant with a score out of 1600,” Bayersdorfer adds, referencing the SAT.

As many schools started this academic year 100% virtually and without in-person interaction, students and teachers are having to put in extra effort to connect virtually. The question on many seniors’ minds is, “How can I build rapport with teachers to facilitate effective teacher recommendations while distance learning?”

Bayersdorfer says visibility can go a long way. “This may sound very simple, but from a teacher’s perspective, turn your camera on once in a while. It is sometimes defeating to teach to a screen full of black muted squares and it’s enlightening to see a face on the other side of my talking.”

She adds: “I’m one month into the school year, and I still haven’t seen the faces of some of my students. Even though it may feel embarrassing for students to take themselves off mute and ask questions virtually, it helps everyone and builds a classroom community that is so difficult to do virtually.”

In the eyes of a college admissions officer, there are layers to consider beyond grades alone, and teachers can help paint a poignant picture.

[Read: Examples of College Recommendation Letters That Impressed Schools.]

“When asking a teacher for a letter of recommendation, it’s important, not so much that you (the student) obtained an A in that class, but that you feel as though you did everything you could to do well in that class,” Bayersdorfer says.

“As teachers, we want our letters to be genuine and accurately reflect the student. In having written several letters of recommendation, I always seek to include information that highlights qualities that make the student an individual, in relation to the successes they were able to have in their four short years,” Bayersdorfer says.

Experts suggest three letters total — two from different teachers and one from an administrator or counselor. The recommendation letters should be from educators who know the student well and have taught him or her in the last two years of rigorous academic courses. An administrator could be a principal or school counselor.

Teachers and college admissions officers suggest five ways for students to secure strong recommendation letters during COVID-19:

— Form a social connection beyond the classroom.

— Host an online extracurricular club.

— Poll teachers for feedback.

— Generate publicity and invite teachers to comment.

— Take the time to be as personal in the request as possible.

Form a Social Connection Beyond the Classroom

Students should consider who the recommenders are and prioritize connecting outside of class. Ideally, the teachers know the student academically and personally, and can highlight his or her strengths. Recommenders should be able to speak on behalf of a student’s character and performance as a school and community member.

Students should keep in mind that letters of recommendation may be required ahead of the college application process. From his experience seeking teacher recommendations for summer programs, Andy Lau, a junior at Homestead High School in California, suggests carefully selecting teachers based on current interactions. “Do you have an active interest in the class? If you have an active interest in the subject, you are more likely to ask more questions and participate in class,” he wrote in an email.

“By taking an active interest in the subject and applying it to your daily life, you form a social connection beyond the classroom,” he adds. “More importantly, it also gives plenty of memorable moments and personal qualities for your teacher to include in the recommendation letter.”

Lau is targeting teachers with whom he has stayed after class to get extra help or discuss course materials. “I am currently considering requesting a letter of recommendation from my child developmental psychology teacher because I often stay after class and discuss how topics apply to my past or daily life,” he says.

“Moreover, if you stay after class, the teacher will get to know you better, and especially during COVID-19, this will make your recommendation stand out.”

Host an Online Extracurricular Club

Not only does forming a club allow students to scale their extracurricular initiative rapidly, it also makes the process of inviting recommenders easier, some experts say.

As observers of virtual meetings, teachers and administrators can gauge the role a student played in launching the activity and how he or she transformed the initiative over time. They also can provide coaching and mentorship to the student and to peers if there is a committee or club involved.

Students who take on leadership roles should be sure to analyze growth data so they can use numbers to speak to their work when soliciting letters of recommendation.

[Read: Get Standout Letters of Recommendations for College as a Home-Schooled Student.]

Poll Teachers for Feedback

Build buy-in by having teachers invest time in providing feedback on topics such as the name of the new initiative, the type of promotional elements to invest in or the format in which a competition can run, if that applies. This will bring them closer to the project.

Generate Publicity and Invite Teachers to Comment

Students can elevate the impact of their leadership by pitching stories on initiatives to local news outlets and securing coverage in a school publication.

Inviting teachers to provide comments naturally allows them to become closer to the project and witness firsthand its impact and growth. A fact sheet and background statement that summarize the project can also be provided to aid in writing a recommendation letter.

Take the Time to Be as Personal in the Request as Possible

Students should explain why they chose to ask the teacher or counselor to write a letter of recommendation and detail their goals for college and beyond, experts say. Students should also let recommenders know the particular points they would like them to consider when writing the letter — including the course taken — and share their broader application narrative. They can include any key terms that they hope college admissions officers will associate with them.

It’s also good for students to remember to offer any support that recommenders need throughout the process, being mindful to work within teacher office hours that may have shifted during the pandemic.

“I would first schedule an office hours appointment where you can have a one on one conversation with your teacher,” Lau says. “If this is not possible, then emailing a polite email is not ideal, but an option.”

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