Braving the Beast: A Look Into College Letters of Recommendation

It's important for juniors to know what goes into a rec letter, and who it's best to ask for one from.

Reading Time: 6 minutes

With the end of the spring semester getting closer and closer, many juniors are beginning to consider the next chapter of their lives: college. Part of the college application process includes asking two or more teachers for letters of recommendation. Getting these letters can become a game for students, as many wonder who to ask and how much participation they need before they do. It prompts the question: how can students get strong letters of recommendation?

Letters of recommendation provide colleges with a holistic view of an applicant that they cannot get from a resumé alone. Colleges look for teachers’ descriptions of students in specific classes to understand how a student thinks and behaves. Some schools specifically require one letter to be from a STEM teacher and the other from a humanities teacher. 

Juniors, who are typically informed about letters of recommendation by their college counselors, often stress over choosing a teacher to ask. Though many students are aware of letters of recommendation as underclassmen from college workshops or guidance push-ins, they only become a concern in the middle of one’s junior year. “I learned sophomore year. I didn't think too much about it. As I got into junior year, I overheard a few junior friends who were really concerned about it discussing it, and I thought I really should be considering what teachers I want,” junior Daniel Wu said.

It is around now, in the months of April and May, that students are encouraged to ask teachers for letters of recommendation. “I was actually gonna ask my teachers pretty late in the year, but then the college counselors said you should ask around spring break,” Wu said. Asking teachers early ensures that they can have ample time to write a strong letter of recommendation, especially since many teachers have many to write. 

Teachers are very different when it comes to letters of recommendation, though. “Every teacher has different timelines for this,” computer science teacher Jessica Novillo said. Some prefer getting asked at the start of the second semester, whereas others don't begin thinking about recommendation letters until May. Likewise, some may ask students to fill out a form about their college preferences, while others may ask students directly by email. For a student, the best course of action is to ask the teacher about their recommendation policy in advance. “I particularly will be happy with somebody [who] asked me,” Novillo said.

The goal of a letter of recommendation, ultimately, is to help admissions officers gain a complete picture of who a student is by observing how they approach their classes. “One of the feedbacks I got from an admissions director at a Harvard fair in 2018 was that they really liked that I provided a full picture. So not just the stripes they liked, but also the areas of improvement or areas of opportunity. I definitely highlight the stripes that aren’t seen in a transcript,” Latin teacher Lance Tomas described. Thus, the most important factor is the letter’s content and how it depicts a student.

Hence, a strong letter often comes from a teacher who has a close relationship with the student. “We have to have a meeting first before I agree to write you a letter, because there may be a better teacher, in my opinion, even though they’re a great student,” Tomas said. After all, understanding the student can improve teachers’ writing, even allowing them to tailor their letters to the specific schools a student is applying to. “I’m trying to find a way to portray how the student is a good fit for that specific college,” Tomas explained. 

Thus, finding a letter of recommendation can be intimidating, especially if students feel as though they don’t have close relationships with any of their teachers. It takes confidence to decide on a teacher for a letter of recommendation and to understand that the letter is no be-all-end-all for a teacher-student relationship. “It was pretty difficult. It took me a lot of conversations with my friends, as well as confidence in the class itself, for me to actually ask my Calculus teacher. I realized that, if you're doing well in a class, there's not really a downside to asking. And also, I realized that teachers don't look at you differently if you ask them for a rec,” Wu explained. After all, the point of the recommendation letter is to be personal. “It's a system for understanding who you are as a student. I just don’t like the extrinsic motivation,” Wu added.

The pressure to get a letter of recommendation can influence the classes some juniors take. “My friend program-changed into Dr. Greenwald’s APUSH section just because she writes amazing recs, apparently,” sophomore Eileen Lee shared as an example. For weeks after AP selection, “Dear Incoming Class” group chats on Facebook get flooded with questions about how good certain teachers are at writing recommendations.

The pressure juniors feel to get the best possible recommendations can be consuming. “Nobody really thinks about recs or talks about recs until late in the year because teachers need time to get to know you. The issue is that college counselors start their meetings, and they'll say, ‘Start thinking about your recs.’ And then everyone starts freaking out, and they all rush to their teacher like a stampede,” junior Aeneas Merchant said. 

The mad dash for letters of recommendation can make popular teachers—especially those of prominent core classes for juniors—reach their capacity very quickly. “My [AP US History] teacher mentioned recs once, as a passing comment. And that alone triggered a stampede of like 50 people from all her classes asking for recs. That's more than half the population of those classes. Within a span of two weeks, all her rec spots were filled up,” Merchant said.

Some students try sucking up to their teachers to better their odds of getting a rec letter from them. Unfortunately for the students, teachers can tell when students are being superficial. “I see through all of that,” Tomas shared. Great teacher relationships are built on genuine interest, and that cannot be faked.

Thus, letters of recommendation shouldn't be on students’ minds when choosing what class to take. “And even about picking the class, it shouldn’t be all about rec letters but rather how much you like the class and how much the teacher is known to teach,” sophomore Sofia Kuptsova said. The majority of the information that gets put on a rec letter comes from a student’s commitment to the class and how they stand amongst their peers. 

In the rush for college, students should keep in mind that recommendation letters are a commitment for teachers, just as they are for students. Teachers who write letters understand this and willingly take their time to help students with their futures beyond Stuyvesant. “I know that students need recommendations. If you want to go to college right now, you need a college recommendation, usually multiple. So even though teachers are not required to write letters of recommendation, I feel like I have to, in the interest of my students, because I feel like I work for my students to a point,” chemistry teacher Dr. Steven O’Malley said.

 Writing letters of recommendation is just as hard as asking for one. It can take a teacher many hours to plan for and write a single letter. “Preparing for writing the letter, the mental energy that goes into it, is the lengthy process,” Dr. O’Malley said. Considering that many teachers write 25 letters or more, writing recommendation letters can be a great time commitment for them. Yet, teachers commit to their letters anyway. “Otherwise, I worry about the quality of each one being lower. It's like a student taking too many classes,” Dr. O’Malley said.

At the end of the day, the best recommendation letters come as a collaboration between the student and the teacher. “[You should ask] someone you know, someone you respect, someone who respects you—someone who you know will put in effort and vouch for you on your behalf,” junior David Chen said. The best teachers to ask for a letter of recommendation may just be those that you know the best; teachers help students the most when they understand them personally enough to accurately describe their character. Fortunately, Stuyvesant hosts a wide variety of teachers who are eager to help and connect with their students.