What’s In a Rec? Teachers Explain the Process of Writing Recommendation Letters

A college recommendation letter… recommends you to a college. And beyond that? Teachers explain how recommendation letters work

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By Cindy Yang

“Passed the class. Very engaged. Not violent towards classmates. 10/10 would recommend this student for your college.”

Or something to that effect. Most Stuyvesant students understand the general gist of a recommendation letter, which is that it should recommend. What is more of a mystery is how teachers write them, especially in the remote world––how do teachers get to know their students? How many recs do they write? What qualities in their students might they look for?

Nearly all teachers agree that a student must do well academically in the class in order to merit a recommendation letter. Social studies teacher David Hanna, for instance, requires a minimum average of A- in his class, as well as high scores on Advanced Placement (AP) and Regents exams to back up what he writes about students.

But as Hanna explains, sometimes these numbers are not enough to string together a whole letter, and it is for this reason that he gives students a brief questionnaire to add some more substance to their recommendations. “Sometimes the letter practically writes itself,” Hanna said. “Other times, it’s a real chore. Either way, it takes at least two drafts.”

Letter-writing is most likely to “write itself” when the teacher really knows the student.
“It is definitely helpful if a student has a strong presence in class through their participation, or has frequently sought me out for help after class or by e-mail,” math teacher Brian Sterr wrote in an e-mail interview. Gary Rubinstein, also from the math department, makes special effort to document his students’ participation. “I’ve been keeping track of participation on this app, ClassDojo, which elementary school teachers use a lot,” he said. “If I [didn’t] keep track of [participation] and mark it, it would all just be gone in my mind at the end.” Beyond documenting the major participants in class, Rubinstein has also made efforts to get to know his students through extra credit videos: “I made some extra credit projects where people made Flipgrid videos, for extra credit or just optional stuff. Some people have done that and I know those people better because I watch these little videos that they made. That was an opportunity I had for people to [...] introduce [themselves]. Those things stand out to me.”

But no matter how many active, bright-eyed, Flipgrid-making students a teacher has in class, there are only so many recommendations a human being can write. “My second year at Stuy, I said ‘yes’ to so many students (without properly keeping track), and wound up having to write nearly 60 letters,” Hanna said. “I will never do that again.” Drowning in a recommendation flood is a problem particularly for teachers of humanities subjects. Assistant Principal of English Eric Grossman was able to cite some statistics: “Naviance shows that some departments write, on average, far more than others, [and] some teachers write far more than others,” he said. Not only do English teachers bear the brunt of letter-writing, but they also help seniors write their college essays, and sometimes read several drafts from a student, which adds a lot of work to teachers’ plates. Grossman added, “The time it takes to write 40 recommendations is time that could be spent planning lessons and responding to student work and helping students.”

The English department has already attempted to dam the recommendations flood. English teacher Megan Weller wrote in an e-mail interview, “The English department, a couple years ago, [...] decided we would have a department cap of 25 [letters].” Over the past five years, Weller’s average has been exactly 25.

One way to re-distribute the weight of letter-writing among teachers could be to ask not just junior teachers, but sophomore teachers, too. “One big misapprehension that I think a lot of students have is that [letters] must be from a junior teacher. Really, [you should ask] a teacher who knows you well,” Grossman explained. Getting a recommendation from a sophomore year teacher instead of a junior year teacher is a particularly promising idea in the world of remote learning, where teachers do not know much more about students than the wall behind them on Zoom. “Normally, when students work in groups in my class, I go around and listen to the conversations and can get a sense of which students take on leadership roles, who likes to help others, etc,” Sterr said. “With breakout rooms, that isn't really possible, especially when 85 percent of the time when I pop into a breakout room, everyone's muted.”

Challenging as it is for students and teachers to get to know each other, there are still some ways to feel more connected. There are Flipgrids. There are office hours. There is an unmute button, which you can click at any moment (perhaps the middle of a lecture?) and let out a primal scream. Then teachers will really know you.