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Teacher Recommendation Letters: How They Impact College Admissions

At various points throughout your high school tenure, you will be asking teachers for letters of recommendation. Academic summer programs, internship opportunities, part-time jobs, scholarship applications, and your eventual college applications will typically ask for letters of support from those that can speak to your work in the classroom and in the broader school community.

Especially with teachers, it’s never too early in high school to build these relationships in ways that are meaningful for you and your teachers.

STAYING ENGAGED IN THE WAKE OF COVID-19

Juniors applying to college this fall have a special challenge. In light of school closures and virtual learning, how do you stay engaged and connected to teachers who will write your college recommendations? This is not the time to check out for the rest of the school year. We are all stressed and anxious about the uncertainty in the world around us, but you can control the time and energy you devote to your virtual classrooms. Staying connected helps you lay the groundwork for strong and enthusiastic letters of recommendation.

WHAT ROLE DO TEACHERS’ RECOMMENDATIONS PLAY IN THE SELECTION PROCESS?

Before diving into how to build connections with your teachers, it’s helpful to understand the role their recommendations play in the selection process, particularly at the highly selective colleges and universities that practice holistic review.

The vast majority of students applying to top colleges will have strong records of academic success in their schools’ most challenging programs. Rigor of courseload combined with class rank is the number one factor in the admissions process cited by admissions officers. Because of their academic success in the classroom – whether through innate ability, a strong work ethic, or both – their transcripts will look remarkably similar, especially after an admissions reader boils down their work in a handful of short phrases: “straight As in school’s top load,” “more As than Bs as program get harder,” “slight downward trend as program gets tougher,” “BC Calc is Achilles heel; rest of grades are tops.”

That’s it. Your three plus years of high school boiled down by an admissions reader to its essence.

THE IMPORTANCE OF TEACHER RECOMMENDATION LETTERS

Thankfully, admissions readers know that to make the nuanced and complex decisions, they need to look further, to understand who you are as a student in a classroom and the broader school community. That’s where your letters of recommendation come into the picture. Narratives from teachers (most top colleges require two letters from two different teachers) give admissions readers greater insight into you the student and school citizen than your grades ever could. Are you the person in class who sparks class discussion with provocative questions? Do you write papers that your teachers hold up as models of creative flair or critical analysis? Are you the lab or project partner who always goes the extra mile to ensure your team’s success? Do you read beyond the class syllabus in search of greater understanding and context for the class assignment? Do you make the classroom, and by extension, the school community, a better place? These are the kinds of things admissions officers are looking for as they read your letters of recommendation.

Juniors, you can be certain that teachers will include reflections on how you stayed academically engaged as your school moved all its learning online. In spite of the challenges we all faced in adapting to our new reality, they will likely share anecdotes about how you found ways through Zoom, Google Classroom, email, texts, etc., to show how you connected with them and continued to grow as a scholar.  They’ll likely talk about your resilience, tenacity, and creativity—how you went above and beyond in your assignments and independent work. What can you do now to show your teachers these very qualities?

NO, REALLY. HOW IMPORTANT ARE TEACHER RECOMMENDATIONS?

In a survey conducted by the National Association of College Admissions Counselors, a group comprised of both admissions officers and high school counselors, here’s a snapshot of the importance of teacher recommendations relative to other parts of an application:

teacher-recommendation-letters-importance

54 percent of admissions offices surveyed responded that teacher recommendations are considerably or moderately important. In terms of considerable importance, recommendations rank above class rank, extracurricular activities, and AP, IB, and subject test scores. Your teacher recommendations are right up there with your own essays.

Keep in mind that the survey reflects a broad range of colleges—from the most selective to those with more generous admissions policies. From our experience in admissions, you can be certain the relative importance of recommendations would undoubtedly be higher.

It’s very likely that letters of recommendation will play an even bigger role in the next admissions cycle, especially when grades are pass/fail and test scores have been waived. The specific anecdotes teachers share about your love of learning, resilience, willingness to stretch yourself, and your role in making the classroom a shared learning environment will set you apart.

HOW TO BUILD RELATIONSHIPS WITH TEACHERS

So, knowing how recommendations are used in the selection process, how do you build relationships with teachers so that they can write letters replete with meaningful, personal, and distinctive praise for your work and contributions? It’s actually easier than you think.

  1. It’s a good idea to get to know your teachers and build relationships with them before you need to ask them for letters of recommendation. Even as a high school freshman, you should be an active student in the classroom. This doesn’t mean you have to be the most talkative. Instead, you should always work to excel in class, seek help and guidance when you have questions, be a regular participant in discussion, and stretch your learning beyond the end of the class period. You want to show your teacher that you truly care about learning – not just as a means to an end (a grade or college).
  2. Now that you’re home and school will likely not reopen this academic year doesn’t mean you can’t continue to build these relationships. If your teachers use Zoom or Google meetups, be an active participant in the virtual class discussions. Do your teachers hold virtual office hours? Sign up for a slot, whether you have a question or not. Talk about something interesting you’ve read related to the class assignment, share an anecdote from life at home, and ask teachers how they are doing at this challenging time.
  3. You should also find ways to cultivate relationships with teachers outside of class. Many of your teachers will lead extracurricular activities, coach teams, direct plays and musicals, and mentor students in all kinds of ways.

Remember that teachers have busy lives outside of school as well—families of their own, stacks of homework to grade—and often put in long hours. An engaged student, who’s eager and prepared to participate in class, and makes a point of thanking teachers and asking how they are doing, will always brighten their day. Most of them probably became teachers because they remember that one teacher who instilled in them a passion for learning—and they want to share that passion with you.

HOW TO APPROACH TEACHERS FOR RECOMMENDATIONS

Juniors, listen up! The time to approach teachers for college recommendation letters is essentially now. This spring, you will want to have identified two teachers of academic subjects (ideally from junior year) to showcase your wonderful qualities as a student and school citizen.

Teachers will be asked to write 5-50 recommendations each year. This is not an easy task, especially for those teachers who invest significant time and energy into mentoring students and want their letters to reflect more than just your grades in their classes.

Andrew Simmons, a teacher in California, writing in an article titled “The Art of the College Recommendation Letter” for The Atlantic in 2014, nails it:

“Writing a meaningful letter of recommendation takes time, a luxury that teachers don’t have . . . My job is not to draw big neon circles around a student’s achievements so that an admissions officer will pay more attention to them. Instead of bragging on behalf of the student, I want to render human the person admissions officers may view as a collection of letters and numbers, to say what those grades and scores cannot. A recommendation letter can discuss the academic and, when relevant, personal challenges a student has faced. It can clarify a student’s learning style and distill what he or she brings to a conversation about an academic topic. After all, colleges are trying to build classes of students, not simply usher in as many high-scoring kids as fate will permit. A recommendation, when it is done right, highlights, instead of purely the triumphs, the intangibles in a student’s application.”

You can help your teacher write their very best letter on your behalf. Even if they know you well, it’s a good idea to take time to speak with them. Find a moment after class to ask if you could set up a time to meet with them to talk about your college aspirations. Come prepared to that meeting with a list of colleges you’re considering (even if its preliminary), some thoughts on what appeals to you about those schools, and share what you think you’d like to study. By the way, this is a good time to ask them for their perspectives on different fields of study!

Since your teachers may not have a full sense of all you do outside of their classrooms, put together a condensed activity sheet or resume (no more than two pages) that highlights your involvements, awards, and accomplishments. Don’t forget that your lives include things you do beyond the school campus, so include hobbies, service, part time jobs, and family responsibilities, too.

TEACHERS: YOUR MENTORS AND ADVOCATES

Remember: the best recommendations are engaging because of the personal anecdotes included in them. That’s what admissions officers will be looking for as they read these letters.

After (virtually) meeting with your teachers, send them a thank you note (email is fine). Most colleges these days will have you list the teachers’ names and email addresses in the Common Application or counseling portals like Naviance. Once the college application season begins in earnest (timed with the Common Application’s August 1 opening day), teachers will get emails from the online systems with instructions on how to submit their letters for you. But, since many teachers will use time in the summer to write recommendations, be sure to talk with your teachers before the end of the school year.

By the way, did you catch that your teachers will likely use their summer to write your recommendation letters? If that’s not indicative of how much they care about your future, we don’t know what is.

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ACT coronavirus COVID-19 Standardized Testing

Big Changes Coming for ACT

Post by TTA tutors: Steven and Amy

As we all struggle to find some stability in a chaotic world created by the Coronavirus, it seems that the only constant is change. In many cases, the change is welcome, even necessary.  Such is the case, we believe, with the proposed three major changes coming to the ACT beginning with the September 2020 test date.

ACT CHANGES

  1. The ACT will be available as an online test at select locations in September, 2020. Of course, this is slightly questionable as shelter in place orders continue to extend.

The sections, question types, timing, and scoring will remain the same. The online test may be more comfortable for some students. For others, it might prove more stressful or distracting. Colleges will not know whether you take the online or the paper test — it is strictly a matter of personal preference. The scores for online tests will be available as quickly as two days later. This is significantly faster than the paper test and may be helpful for students who are up against application deadlines.

The online test will be given at specified locations on ACT computers. It will not be available for home testing, or on your own laptop, even at a testing center. Scratch paper will be available, and the testing software will include highlighting tools. You will be able to go back and change answers if there is time remaining in the section.

Some students prefer the comfortable environment of working on a computer screen. Others prefer to have the ability to mark on the page with their pencils as they work through the material. We advise you to try both environments before making your decision. The Official Beginner’s Guide for ACT (a publication of ACT, Inc.) includes access to an online practice test so that you can see for yourself which option is best for you.

  1. ACT will report a “superscore” for those who take more than one ACT.

About one third of all institutions currently allow superscoring. The change is that, now, ACT will automatically report the best score on each of your English, Math, Reading, and Science sections across all of the ACTs you take, and calculate your hypothetical composite score as though each of your best section scores were on the same full ACT. Colleges and universities will still each decide how to handle this information. Some will not consider the superscore in making admission decisions. Be sure to check with the schools and programs you are applying to for more information.

  1. If you have taken one complete, or “full-battery,” ACT at any time since 2016, you may choose to retake individual sections.

You may retake one, two, or three sections as an online test at select locations on any of the seven annual national test dates beginning with September 2020. You may NOT take individual sections as paper-and-pencil exams. In our opinion, this is the most exciting change. It means that, with proper planning, you could take your “full-panel” ACT on one day, and then do the writing section as a stand-alone test at a later date without the fatigue that is a major factor for many students. Some students will benefit from the reduced fatigue and stress when retaking only one, two, or three sections rather than an entire ACT exam.

PREPARATION REMAINS KEY

As always, talk with your tutor to determine whether to take advantage of the new ACT testing format.  Preparedness is still critical, so be sure to work out a plan well in advance of your test date.

The situation with COVID-19 remains a fluid and fast-changing one wreaking havoc on all scheduled testing. Be sure to regularly check testing websites to stay on top of the most recent developments regarding closures or travel restrictions. For more information read our prior post about COVID-19 and admissions.

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College Enrichment Program coronavirus COVID-19 Graduate Admissions Seniors

College Enrichment Program: Maintain Your Scholarly Focus

You are asking and we are listening.

We’ve been flooded with inquiries from parents whose college aged kids are home and unclear how to maintain their scholarly focus. Hopefully everyone is heeding the social distancing mandate, but with time on your hands you CAN take action.

CLASS OF 2020 SENIORS AND CURRENT COLLEGE STUDENTS

This month has NOT gone to plan for you with the multitude of closings, cancellations coupled with the move to virtual learning for almost all students due to COVID-19. We’ve spoken with students in the U.S. and internationally who were hurriedly ushered off their campuses, have received little academic guidance as their courses flip to online formats, are unsure how to arrange backup summer plans, and are seeking to ensure their academic, research foundation and overall college (and eventual grad school) plans don’t fall off track.

You don’t have you do it alone!….

CONSIDER OUR COLLEGE ENRICHMENT PROGRAM

Dr. Kristen Willmott​​ will help ​students​ sharpen an academic area, define a clear research-based foundation, and take tangible steps to demonstrate scholarly achievements at the college level. Even better, our College Enrichment Program is fully virtual so no coronavirus concerns. Consulting is done via email, phone and/or Skype/Zoom and sold in 5-hour increments. 

Our program includes:

  • Personalized College Enrichment Action Plan
  • College Course Selection Guidance (including summer online courses for credit)
  • Identification of Unique Academic and Research Opportunities Customized for You
  • Recommendations and Assistance with Appropriate Fellowship, Scholarship, Internship, Conference Presentation & Publishing Opportunities
  • Resume or Curriculum Vitae Guidance/Editing

You lost important access to your on-campus academic, college, internship, and research advisors  –we are here to fill that gap. Contact us today to learn more. Limited availability.

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coronavirus COVID-19 Top Tips

Top Tips to Fight Coronavirus Stress

Post by: Mimi Doe

The Coronavirus (COVID-19) global pandemic is incredibly stressful for all of us in so many ways. For students, whose lives are turned upside down, they are unable to turn to friends to buffer their anxiety. Routines are disrupted, plans are canceled, and high school as they’d envisioned has changed overnight. One of the most effective ways to bolster your immune system, however, is to reduce stress. Here are some tips as you navigate this surreal new reality.

TOP TIPS TO REDUCE CORONAVIRUS STRESS

  1. Limit News

I’ve been in the hospital for the past 3 days with my daughter, who just had a baby girl. Yes, it was stressful and eerie being in a hospital during this frightening time, wondering if the coronavirus was lurking on every surface. But once my sweet, tiny granddaughter was born, we entered another zone.  It became all about the baby and mommy recovering. It was baby’s weight and hearing test and blood work and burping and feeding.  We didn’t watch television news, read a newspaper, or turn the New York Times on our phones. Instead, we counted time by the baby’s feedings.  It was liberating.  There were no visitors allowed, so the rhythm of life in a hospital room was calm.  I urge you to take a conscious break from the news. Life will go on without you checking in on the latest crisis.  Try it.  Ban the news for the day and see how you feel. Trust me, you will hear any urgent updates from family and friends.

  1. Create a Schedule

Around the world high schools have switched to online classes or simply ended classes for the year.  It’s not easy to manage a schedule when there are no bells ringing or the routine of life in high school. Be the boss of your day, as much as you can, and organize your time. Create a mindful routine in the mornings now that you aren’t rushing to catch a school bus or carpool.  Set up breaks to move away from the computer.

  1. Exercise

Even though sports practices are halted, don’t stop moving your body.  Add exercise to your schedule.  There are plenty of free ways to do so online.  I’m obsessed with Yoga with Adriene on YouTube and I’ve heard great things about Core Power Yoga classes.  Get outside and jump rope (we see plenty of rope jumpers on high rise balconies here in Austin), or like my husband, challenge yourself to increase your time in plank posture.  Exercise definitely helps lower your stress and increases your endorphins.

  1. Stay Connected

Friends are a critical lifeline during this time of isolation and it can be agony to be away from them.  Come up with ways to stay connected while maintaining social distance.  Have a virtual dinner party with a bunch of your friends via FaceTime or Zoom.  Social distancing doesn’t mean you can’t visit a friend through the window or 6 feet apart in a circle playing your favorite instruments.  Can you designate a parking lot and gather sitting on your car trunks like these teens? 

  1. Address Test Anxiety

High school classes are still happening online and students still have tests.  Many classes are going to be pass/fail, but it’s not a time to slack off.  Standardized tests will happen eventually and your prep for the ACT, SAT, Subject Tests and APs should be happening for you now.  AP tests will be administrated online, so students can still take them at home. They will be shorter than the original AP test but the scores will still matter for college admissions, especially for current juniors. Subject Tests in May have been pushed to June and who knows if they will happen.

We’ve got you covered with our Test Anxiety guidebook with all the tips and techniques you need to conquer this particular stress. Subscribe to our newsletter and receive this super helpful resource.

  1. Sleep

If you don’t get enough sleep, your body produces more stress hormones.  Create a plan for at least 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night!  Have trouble falling asleep? I use the free Insight Timer app when my racing mind keeps me up. The guided meditations are just the trick when sleep won’t come.  I especially like the sleep meditations by Bethany Auriel-Hagen.  I also am a big proponent of getting your technology out of the bedroom (yes, even charging your phone in another room). In fact, get off of your devices an hour or two before preparing for sleep.  There is plenty of research that blue light increases your stress. Blue light glasses are readily available online and you might try them to see if your stress goes down. I take magnesium about an hour before bedtime.  Studies have shown that many of us are magnesium deficient.  Talk to your doctor of course, but magnesium relaxes and calms most people.  Some like to drink their magnesium and Calm does the trick for many teenagers I know. Give it a try.

  1. Take a Virtual Vacation

Many families were planning exciting summer trips that have now been cancelled or postponed. Just because you can’t fly to Paris, however, doesn’t mean you can’t spend some time in the Louvre! Thanks to the wonders of technology, you can teleport to some of the world’s greatest art museums and historical sites from the comfort of your quarantine. As an added benefit, studies show that engaging with art and culture leads to increased rates of good health and lower rates of anxiety and depression.

Next time you’re tempted to refresh Twitter, try going on one of these virtual tours instead:

Remember—take it one day at a time and don’t forget to breathe. When it comes to college admissions stress, we’re here for you! Reach out today, and let’s make a plan together.