The student behind the numbers

What does it take to get letters of recommendation?

Although test scores and GPA are factors college admissions offices care much about, letters of recommendation give students an opportunity to showcase other aspects of their personalities and achievements.

The process begins when students request teachers and counselors to vouch for skills, achievements and character traits in regards to their academic — and in some cases non-academic — qualities.

IvyWise, a college admissions counseling program, explains why letters of recommendation matter. The program categorizes letters of recommendation as a “soft factor” or a qualitative element of an application alongside essays and extracurricular activities.

“They [letters of recommendation] provide insight into what you are like as a student and person from the perspective of someone who has worked closely with you during your high school career,” Ivywise wrote. “The experiences that counselors and teachers have had with you can help to paint a better overall picture of your accomplishments, potential, and character.”

Letters of recommendations are often required by colleges alongside each application, and universities that require letters include top tier colleges such as Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Columbia University.

School counselor Randall McLelland testified to his role in the college application process and why schools request them.

“The most common schools that require counselor recommendation are schools that use the common application as their tool for collecting information about the applications,” McLelland said. “There are other schools that don’t use the common application. They have their own application systems who also want counselor recommendations”

While Oak Park High School staff used to hand-write letters, place them in envelopes and stamp them, letters are now processed through Naviance, a program where students can also store important academic information.

“[It is] an electronic interface between us and the common application and 90 percent of most colleges and universities out there,” McLelland said. “Fill out those questions in Naviance, build that résumé in Naviance.”

Letters of recommendation allow colleges to receive insight into a student’s commitment to a certain subject, extracurricular or project. Math teacher Robin Midiri explained the activities she personally enjoys writing about and how those activities shape a student’s readiness for college.

“If students have taken both statistics and either math analysis or calculus, I like to point out that they leave high school with a very strong math background. I also like to incorporate if they have been one of my math tutors in our Math Honors Society,” Midiri said. “I have had students where they are very involved in either music or theatre. I enjoy writing about getting to watch a student do Calculus and perform in a show”

Some teachers directly ask the student about their interests while others base their letter off of personal knowledge.

Senior Claire Epstein decided to choose her teachers based on her experiences with them, both academically and personally. She coordinated to receive letters of recommendation from math teacher Robin Midiri, Chinese teacher Sherry Hung and district Superintendent Tony Knight.

“Their respective classes/club pertain to the studies I want to pursue in college. They have had the biggest impact on my high school career in terms of their generous support and invaluable advice about the future,” Epstein said. “I think exploring a variety of subjects and reaching out to teachers — who, more often than not, want to offer advice — is important not only for letters of recommendation but for a student to get an idea of what they’re passionate about.”

It is common for students to request letters from teachers who teach the field or run the club that the student is interested in or plans to study.

“It all fits together — when the admission committee sees all the parts ‘scream’ a certain major,” college and career adviser Jean Gilbert Hawkins said.

History teacher Chris Meyer emphasized the fact that students should request a letter of recommendation well before the due date.

“I greatly appreciate students who come to discuss a letter of recommendation within a reasonable time frame. Too often, students come to ask for a letter only a few days before the deadline, and that’s not fair to do to a teacher who will be going out of his or her way to assist the student,” Meyer said.

Hawkins said that students should ask teachers for letters in a more personal manner: face-to-face.

“I always suggest, give the teacher a thank-you note, and you can phrase it ‘Thanking you in advance for taking the time to write a letter of recommendation for me,’” Hawkins said. “You must really appreciate their efforts to take the time to write this letter [and] request formally from Naviance as well.”

According to McLelland, the sooner you ask for a letter, the better.

“The advice I would give is to get ready for the process over the summer, between junior and senior year,” McLelland said. “That includes starting to think about which teachers you want letters from. It’s not at all a problem to ask a teacher during junior year. ”

Once letters have been written and submitted, they are sent to the university or college for admissions counselors to evaluate with the rest of the student’s application.

“When the letters of recommendation come in, they echo what the student’s interests and passions are,” Hawkins said.

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