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Juniors: Focus on Teacher Recommendations Now

It feels early--teacher recommendations won’t be written until September or October of senior year--so why think about it now?  

Because of relationships.

The best teacher recommendations come from teachers who know the student well and can speak from a deep personal experience with the student. Oftentimes, the best letters are the ones in which the teacher taught the kid twice - perhaps first freshman or sophomore year, and later junior year (maybe even senior year).  Those recommendations carry a lot of weight because the teacher can speak to the growth and maturity of the student in a historical context.  The problem, of course, is that having the same teacher twice doesn’t happen all that often, and if it does, there is no guarantee that the relationship is a positive one. So we recommend you start thinking about recommendations now in order to develop (or maintain) a positive relationship with the teacher.

I have met many students who were sure they were going to get a recommendation from a teacher from sophomore year but haven’t talked to that teacher in a year-and-a-half. Goodbyes were said after finals sophomore year, and sixteen months later, an email pops up asking for a recommendation. While most teachers will happily do it, they don’t have enough material to speak to the qualifications and the personality of the student applying and who they are now because the teacher will be describing a student from two years ago. (I don’t know any senior that believes he or she is the same senior year as sophomore year.) So while well-intentioned, it really does a disservice to the student.

To make matters worse, the current pandemic and remote school have made maintaining the contact much harder. As a result, juniors should start focusing on recommendations now and actively pursue deeper relationships with those teachers.  

“But how?”, they ask.

Fair point. After all, in online school, there’s no opportunity to run into a teacher in the hall to say hi or to pop into the teacher’s office to give an update on an exciting project. So we go back to the written word. Send an email to say, hi, how’re you doing? Talk about enjoying the class and thinking about college. Ask for advice on your writing...or lab reports...or a summer course. Say thank you. Ask for advice on what class to take next year, talk about a project you’re working on in school, tell about your latest athletic achievement. Yes, it’s a little awkward at first, but a dialogue will develop pretty quickly, and then you can email every two to three weeks--not urgent, just maintaining contact. Or, maybe you take the direct approach and say upfront, I was thinking I would ask you to write a recommendation for me when I apply to college and I want to keep in touch.

As a student, you have to take the initiative to reach out to the teachers and develop a relationship beyond the Zoom interactions in a group. So ask questions, and if there are office hours, Zoom in and say hi. React to the class that day and have a conversation about it. The point is, you want someone writing about you who knows you and knows who you are now, not someone writing about someone in the past or someone that is vaguely remembered as a face on a screen--and that takes effort, even more now if you’re in online school.