by Phil Olson
Each fall, former students, seniors who are a week or a month into their last year of high school, show up at my door. They try for some small talk, while their eyes communicate that they know I know about the Ask that’s coming. It’s awkward and sweet, and I say yes, telling them it will be my pleasure. And it is.
In recent years, college recommendations are increasingly accomplished via one platform, the Common App, a non-profit organization that represents 900 institutions of higher education.
The application’s commonness allows students to complete one application for undergraduate college admission, instead of completing separate applications for each school. The platform also manages teacher recommendations, which consists primarily of letters of recommendation and a series of comparative ratings.
As far as an unpaid, part-time jobs go, completing college application recommendations is a good one. Let me explain.
First, I enjoy writing recommendation letters because I must pause to reflect on my experiences with students who are about to be done with high school. I think about the work we did together (in fact, I like to revisit and quote their essays!), the things I learned about their personal stories, and I marvel at the truly remarkable process of maturation that unfolds in dramatic, double-time fashion during high school.
Because I teach the spectrum of grade levels, I get to know my students first as kids and later as young adults. I like how the recommendation process caps our time together, and I find it meaningful to have played a positive role, sometimes small and sometimes substantial, in helping students prepare for and take next steps. I also get earnest thank you notes whose words do their intended job of making me feel useful and appreciated, and sometimes students show up to tell me when they’ve been accepted to schools and to talk through plans--often including the fact that they need additional recommendation letters for this scholarship and that. I get to help with those too.
A second, meaningful feature of the recommendation dynamic has made me a better educator, an improvement fueled by the ratings chart below. Give it a close read before we move on.
I have mixed feelings about rating recommendees in relation to student peers, but I continue to appreciate almost all of the categories, as they capture attributes that really matter—for success in high school, college, and life. The thing is that, years back, I realized I was rating students with regard to categories they were not aware of. Sure, these are things that matter to educators, but I can confirm they are not obvious to students who have absorbed messages about the defining nature of GPAs and standardized test scores. To be more blunt, students are confused about what matters, as evidenced by how surprised mine are when I share the chart with them.
Since teachers are evaluating students on the criteria above, it makes sense for us to establish them as "studenting" targets in our classrooms—targets that need to be discussed early and often.
A couple of criticisms:
Okay, “academic achievement” is challengingly broad and inclusive, and rating “intellectual promise” is a toughie, but I like to ponder the promise I see in my students. The student who writes poetry or plays chess beautifully? That’s promising. The student who is passionate about saving the planet, dismantling patriarchy, or understanding physics . . . promising!
The five criteria, with some overlap, that I find most meaningful:
Like many area teachers I am in the midst of ultra-busy weeks as I bring first semester classes to a close, while simultaneously preparing to transition to the second half of the year. This time in the academic calendar is always fraught, with extra helpings of grading (and some grade-grubbing) and planning, as well as a never-quiet Outlook inbox. This year, though, it’s fraught² (An exponent because many of us must wrap and restart in distance-learning mode. **Deep breath, focusing on a long exhale with healing self-talk: Phew... Everything will be okay.**)
As my students and I start second semester, we’ll wait on talk about percentages or papers; instead we’ll use the ratings chart to discuss authentic, effective studenting, which is even more important in distance-learning mode. Then they’ll reflect, in writing, on how they rate themselves for semester 1 before specifying targets for where they want to grow in semester 2.
They will write recommendations for themselves.
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