There are three components to a student’s college application: the materials they provide the colleges, in the form of the application and essays; the data supplied by the Tabor transcript, Tabor profile, the secondary school report form, and standardized tests; and the recommendations. The counselor recommendation is essentially the Tabor statement, the summary of a student’s high school experience both in and out of the classroom. As college counselors, we read teacher comments, solicit input from parents, and interview advisors to write a comprehensive and personal student profile. It is not so much about what students do (that’s in the application) as who they are. It is a labor-intensive process, but we know our students well and work hard to reveal their best qualities.
Rick Clark, director of admissions at Georgia Tech, has a wonderful ability to reflect on the opportunity to apply to college as a learning tool and not simply a process of checking boxes. In his monthly blog last July, Clark wrote about applying to college and the value of each of the application’s components, including teacher recommendations. “Don’t just ask teachers for recommendations. Take the opportunity to thank them for their time and effort. Share what you learned in the course and how it’s helped or impacted you. College applications should not be treated only as a vehicle for delivering information to schools. If you fully engage, they actually have the potential to be an exercise in reflecting on your high school career and assessing how your experience directs you in the future, regardless of where you end up going to college.” Clark makes it clear that a student’s relationship with their teachers and the way in which they ask for a recommendation is a critical part of the journey.
Like college counselors, teachers become familiar with their students’ styles; they ask them to reflect on their work in class and invite conversation about their strengths and talents. Science teacher John Crosby characterizes his recommendations as completing a picture. Students for whom he is writing a recommendation submit a reflection form that asks, among other things, about major themes from their college essays so that his writing focuses on similar qualities and creates a cohesive tone. If an admissions representative reads about an interest or talent in an essay, and then sees a parallel reference to it in his recommendation, it sends a consistent message. Dr. Crosby finds inspiration from his colleague Roxie Bratton in the history department who, ever the historian, strives to tell the human story in his recommendations. Our teachers know that you get “data” from other parts of the application. Grades speak to procedural and content knowledge. The teacher recommendation is about the person seated in the classroom – a student’s triumphs and setbacks, growth and potential, thoughts and struggles.
Math teacher Mackenzie Chaput talks about citizenship in her recommendations. “I care about how students treat others. Are they patient? Do they support each other and collaborate well? Can they articulate their thoughts and ask good questions?” Gary Sousa, from Tabor’s history
department, looks first to the classroom experience when preparing to write his recommendations so things such as leadership, helping others, risk-taking, honesty, and friendliness are highlighted. “If I know the student from the dorm or advisory, I make that clear. If I know that they are applying as an athlete, I make it clear that I am aware of their talents.” But teacher recommendations are first and foremost reflections on academic acumen. The lens of the classroom teacher is vital to admissions readers who want to know how a student will contribute to their intellectual community.
Of all the various components of the college application, teacher recommendations seem straightforward, since they are the work of another. But in actuality, they are as deserving of the applicant’s time and attention as their personal essays. Colleges ask for teacher recommendations for a reason; they want to know the applicant better, so it stands to reason that the applicants find teachers who will reflect on their best selves . In reality, students write their own recommendations with who they are every day they live and learn at Tabor. Recommendations are one chapter in the greater story of each applicant. Make it a page-turner.