Letter of Recommendation: What Teens Need to Know

Senior year means a lot of stress for twelfth graders. These stressors all revolve around the college application, of course, or the application to a gap year program, or for a job or internship. All of these options require at least two recommendations from teachers. One of the problems with this process, however, is that a teacher’s letter of recommendation is based on your past performance, and not your present status. Therefore, you really have to start thinking about this as a junior.

The questions a high school teacher asks herself before she writes a letter of recommendation for college.

The tough thing about this part of the application lies in the fact that it is dependent upon someone other than you, the student. This is not a place where you can brag about your awards, or tell stories about your most daring feats of helpfulness in the face of a crisis. This is where the admissions officer gets to hear another point of view.

  • Are you the kid you profess to be?
  • Is there more to you than grades?
  • Do your teachers sing your singular praises, or write generic descriptions of their classes because they don’t know quite what to say about you?
  • Is there a mutual respect here, a relationship created through the give and take of class discussion and effort?
  • These questions will be answered through the language of a teacher’s recommendation, and that is why the letter is so important.

This is yet one more reason that your junior year is so important. Because, getting your teacher to write you a good recommendation doesn’t begin in the late spring of Junior year or the early fall of senior year. It begins the moment you step into that teacher’s classroom in the fall of 11th grade.

When I am asked to write a recommendation, these are the questions I ask myself:

1. Did you make an impression on me in a positive way?

This could happen in various ways:

  1. You might have a strong personality, which came through in our class discussions.
  2. You might have asked important or delving questions that helped others to understand more deeply the issues of the day.
  3. You might have come to me for help when you didn’t understand an issue.
  4. You might have provided help to your classmates when they didn’t understand something, or asked a shy classmate to join your group throughout the year (being inclusive is something that often stands out in my memory)

2. Did you put in effort throughout the year? 

This means lots of things to a teacher:

  1. Did you do the work assigned?
  2. When you didn’t, were you honest about why?
  3. Did you participate in class?
  4. Did you ask for help?
  5. Did you come on time for class and help sessions?
  6. Did you earn a grade, or expect a grade?

3. Most importantly, the question I ask is this: Do I know you as a person?

This sounds nebulous, but means:

  1. Did you give me an honest impression of what is important to you?
  2. Did you talk to me about what you wanted to learn, and push yourself to learn more about what is important to you?
  3. Did you delve deeply into topics, or only do exactly what I asked?
  4. Did you find a way to make an assignment yours, by adding your voice, when appropriate?
  5. Did you make the effort to make the class meaningful for you?

These are all difficult questions to answer. I don’t expect to be able to answer every one of them positively for every student. I will certainly write recommendations for most who ask, but my best recommendations will be written for the students who stand out to me.

So, my advice to juniors is to create a strong bond with a few teachers. When you are ready to ask them for a recommendation, think about the kind of impression you made on them, and make sure to ask them in person. No matter how strong our relationship, respect is shown through eye-to-eye communication, not through the pressing of a send button. I very rarely say no to requests, but the better I know you, the better my letter will be, and the more your application will stand out.

This is the only part of your application when someone else speaks for you. Make sure the right person is doing the talking.

Emily GenserEmily Genser is the mother of Abigail (5) and Josh (2 1/2) and a high school English teacher in West Hartford, Connecticut. She is passionate about both jobs and spends most of her time laughing. You can find her blogging away her few free moments of the day at Exhausted but Smiling.

The “New” SAT

With a new school year upon us, high school juniors and seniors will undoubtedly have questions about changes in the SAT format.


The first thing you should know is that these changes are taking place in reaction to the fact that more students took the ACT last year than the SAT. The SAT is changing in order to compete with the growing popularity of the ACT in the hope that the SAT will reclaim its traditional target market. How? You may ask.  Put simply, the revised SAT is becoming more like the existing ACT in form- similar length, optional essay, greater reliance on reading analysis and writing techniques, no loss of credit for incorrect answers, more advanced math content, etc. Detailed comparative studies are easily accessible online and are not the purpose of this essay.

With format changes that result in greater similarity between the two tests, the SAT will not be as skilled based as it has been up to now. Like the ACT, it will put more emphasis on retention and recall of factual information.


Let’s start with the PSAT. It will be given on Sat. Oct 14 or Sat Oct 28. Most schools are opting for the 14th and the College Board is pushing for the earlier date. This October’s PSAT will prepare students for the revised SAT which will be administered starting in March, 2016.


The “old”, unrevised SAT will be given on Oct. 3, Nov.7, Dec3, and Jan.23.


The “new’ revised SAT will be given on March 5, May 7, and June 4.


What should rising juniors do? Obviously they will take the PSAT in October even if they’ve already taken it as sophomores. Next, they should take the Nov. 7 SAT. This is particularly true for students who may have already taken the PSAT as sophomores as they’re already familiar with the “old” SAT format. It’s also true for those who might struggle with the more advanced math of the revised version, and for those who may find it difficult to analyze written passages and/or recognize writing techniques. Don’t let the fact that the essay will become optional on the revised SAT become a determining factor. Students taking the revised SAT should opt for the essay anyway as they will find it good practice for college application essays.


Take the revised or “new” SAT in the Spring, March 5, May 7, or June 4. This way, you will have taken two different versions of the SAT, and you can send out whichever set of scores proves to be your better showcase. Colleges will accept scores from both the “old” SAT and the “new.” Remember, also, that you can always retake the SAT in the fall of the senior year. However, scoring well enough on either version in the 11th grade might make retaking the test unnecessary. That’s a definite “plus” for seniors who are busy enough in the fall with campus visitations, writing application essays, collecting letters of recommendation, etc.


The Big Problem With the New SAT

The Big Problem With the New SAT
Continue reading the main storyContinue reading the main storyShare This Page
Continue reading the main story
Continue reading the main storyContinue reading the main story

This story is included with an NYT Opinion subscription.
Learn more »
AT first glance, the College Board’s revised SAT seems a radical departure from the test’s original focus on students’ general ability or aptitude. Set to debut a year from now, in the spring of 2016, the exam will require students to demonstrate in-depth knowledge of subjects they study in school.

The revised SAT takes some important, if partial, steps toward becoming a test of curriculum mastery. In place of the infamously tricky, puzzle-type items, the exam will be a more straightforward test of material that students encounter in the classroom. The essay, rather than rewarding sheer verbosity, will require students to provide evidence in support of their arguments and will be graded on both analysis and writing. Vocabulary will move away from the obscure language for which the SAT is noted, instead emphasizing words commonly used in college and the workplace.

While a clear improvement, the revised SAT remains problematic. It will still emphasize speed — quick recall and time management — over subject knowledge. Despite evidence that writing is the single most important skill for success in college, the essay will be optional. (Reading and math will still be required.)

And the biggest problem is this: While the content will be new, the underlying design will not change. The SAT will remain a “norm-referenced” exam, designed primarily to rank students rather than measure what they actually know. Such exams compare students to other test takers, rather than measure their performance against a fixed standard. They are designed to produce a “bell curve” distribution among examinees, with most scoring in the middle and with sharply descending numbers at the top and bottom. Test designers accomplish this, among other ways, by using plausible-sounding “distractors” to make multiple-choice items more difficult, requiring students to respond to a large number of items in a short space of time, and by dropping questions that too many students can answer correctly.

“Criterion-referenced” tests, on the other hand, measure how much students know about a given subject. Performance is not assessed in relation to how others perform but in relation to fixed academic standards. Assuming they have mastered the material, it is possible for a large proportion, even a majority, of examinees to score well; this is not possible on a norm-referenced test.

K-12 schools increasingly employ criterion-referenced tests for this reason. That approach reflects the movement during the past two decades in all of the states — those that have adopted their own standards, as well as those that have adopted the Common Core — to set explicit learning standards and assess achievement against them.

Norm-referenced tests like the SAT and the ACT have contributed enormously to the “educational arms race” — the ferocious competition for admission at top colleges and universities. They do so by exaggerating the importance of small differences in test scores that have only marginal relevance for later success in college. Because of the way such tests are designed, answering even a few more questions correctly can substantially raise students’ scores and thereby their rankings. This creates great pressure on students and their parents to avail themselves of expensive test-prep services in search of any edge. It is also unfair to those who cannot afford such services. Yet research on college admissions has repeatedly confirmed that test scores, as compared to high school grades, are relatively weak predictors of how students actually perform in college.

Continue reading the main storyContinue reading the main storyContinue reading the main story
By design, norm-referenced tests reproduce the same bell-curve distribution of scores from one year to the next, with only minor differences. This makes it difficult to gauge progress accurately.

Rather than impose higher education’s antiquated regime of norm-referenced tests on K-12 schools, American education would be better served if the kind of criterion-referenced tests now increasingly employed in K-12 schools flowed upward, to our colleges and universities.

Continue reading the main story

Jeffrey B. 18 minutes ago
S.A.T. – Scholastic Aptitude Test.More accurately, a test to determine how much money you have, as evidenced by your success on this test…
steve 19 minutes ago
Where did the idea that speed is important arise? We’ve all heard the starting command, “Pick up your pencils!” and the more troubling,…
PJ 20 minutes ago
Given the increasing availability of online courses, will the SAT even be relevant for admission to universities in ten tears? And what does…
Two objections to such tests are that they presuppose a national curriculum and that they might produce the same disparities as norm-referenced exams.

However, experience with the respected National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that, even without a national curriculum, there is enough similarity across the states to permit development of nationally representative, criterion-referenced exams.

And by rewarding students’ efforts in the regular classroom, criterion-referenced exams reduce the importance of test-prep services, thus helping to level the playing field. They signal to students and teachers that persistence and hard work, not just native intelligence or family income, can bring college within reach. They are better suited to reinforce the learning of a rigorous curriculum in our poorest schools.

College admissions will never be perfectly fair and rational; the disparities are too deep for that. Yet the process can be fairer and more rational if we rethink the purposes of college-entrance exams.

The revised SAT takes promising steps away from its provenance as a test of general ability or aptitude — a job it never did well — and toward a test of what students are expected to learn in school. But the College Board should abandon the design that holds it back from fulfilling that promise.

Richard C. Atkinson is president emeritus of the University of California. Saul Geiser is a research associate at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California, Berkeley.

A version of this op-ed appears in print on May 5, 2015, on page A23 of the New York edition with the headline: The Big Problem With the New SAT. Order Reprints| Today’s Paper|Subscribe


Summer Reading Lists

High school students who are thinking ahead to the college admissions process should consider taking advantage of vacation time to get some help with summer reading lists. Tutoring assistance can pay big dividends in both high school classes and in college admissions offices.

What Students Really Need To Hear

This is an essay posted by a former student who now teaches high school.

It’s 4 a.m.  I’ve struggled for the last hour to go to sleep.  But, I can’t.  Yet again, I am tossing and turning, unable to shut down my brain.  Why?  Because I am stressed about my students.  Really stressed.  I’m so stressed that I can only think to write down what I really want to say — the real truth I’ve been needing to say — and vow to myself that I will let my students hear what I reallythink tomorrow.

This is what students really need to hear:

First, you need to know right now that I care about you. In fact, I care about you more than you may care about yourself.  And I care not just about your grades or your test scores, but about you as a person. And, because I care, I need to be honest with you. Do I have permission to be honest with you — both in what I say and how I say it?

Here’s the thing: I lose sleep because of you.  Every week.

Before I tell you why, you should understand the truth about school. You see, the main event of school is not academic learning. It never has been. It never will be. And, if you find someone who is passionate in claiming that it is about academics, that person is lying to himself or herself and may genuinely believe that lie. Yes, algebra, essay writing, Spanish, the judicial process —  all are important and worth knowing. But they are not the MAIN event.

The main event is learning how to deal with the harshness of life when it gets difficult — how to overcome problems as simple as a forgotten locker combination, to obnoxious peers, to gossip, to people doubting you, to asking for help in the face of self-doubt, to pushing yourself to concentrate when a million other thoughts and temptations are fingertips away.

It is your resilience in conquering the main event — adversity — that truly prepares you for life after school. Because, mark my words, school is not the most challenging time you will have in life. You will face far greater challenges than these. Sure, you will have times more amazing than you can imagine, but you will also confront incomparable tragedy, frustration, and fear in the years to come.

But, you shouldn’t be worried about the fact that you will face great adversities. You should be worried because you’re setting yourself up to fail at overcoming them. Here’s the real reason I lose hours of sleep worrying about you: You are failing the main event of school. You are quitting.  You may not think you are quitting, but you are because quitting wears many masks.

For some, you quit by throwing the day away and not even trying to write a sentence or a fraction because you think it doesn’t matter or you can’t or there’s no point. But it does. What you write is not the main event. The fact that you do take charge of our own fear and doubt in order to write when you are challenged — THAT is the main event.

Some of you quit by skipping class on your free education. Being punctual to fit the mold of the classroom is not the main event of showing up. The main event is delaying your temptation and investing in your own intelligence — understanding that sometimes short-term pain creates long-term gain and that great people make sacrifices for a greater good.

For others, you quit by being rude and disrespectful to adults in the hallway who ask you to come to class. Bowing to authority is not the main event. The main event is learning how to problem solve maturely, not letting your judgement be tainted by the stains of emotion.

I see some of you quit by choosing not to take opportunities to work harder and pass a class, no matter how far down you are. The main event is not getting a number to tell you you are worthy. The main event is pulling your crap together and making hard choices and sacrifices when things seem impossible.  It is finding hope in the hopeless, courage in the chasm, guts in the grave.

What you need to see is that every time you take the easy way out, you are building a habit of quitting. And it will destroy your future and it will annihilate your happiness if you let it.   Our society cares nothing for quitters.  Life will let you die alone, depressed, and poor if you can’t man or woman up enough to deal with hardship.  You are either the muscle or the dirt.  You either take resistance and grow stronger or blow in the wind and erode.

As long as you are in my life, I am not going to let quitting be easy for you.  I am going to challenge you, confront you, push you, and coach you.  You can whine.  You can throw a tantrum.  You can shout and swear and stomp and cry.  And the next day, guess what?  I will be here waiting — smiling and patient — to give you a fresh start.  Because you are worth it.

So, do yourself a favor: Man up. Woman up.  No more excuses.  No more justifications.  No blaming.  No quitting.  Just pick your head up.  Rip the cords out of your ears.  Grab the frickin’ pencil and let’s do this.

– C. Mielke

Parents Role in the College Admissions Process

An intersting article from the folks at College Transitions:

Two years ago, a student at the University of Cincinnati won a restraining order against her parents for “stalking” her in college. They had installed spyware on their daughter’s phone and computer, snuck into her dorm room on multiple occasions, and regularly met with the dean of her college demanding academic updates. In an age where the media has as many terms for overly-involved parents as the Eskimos have for snow (Tiger moms, Helicopter parents, wolf dads, etc.), this anecdote, sadly, hardly comes as a surprise.

Parents are unquestionably a critical component to a student’s college transition but it’s important to delineate what parental action is helpful and what may be detrimental in the admissions process.

What hurts

1. Sometimes parents, swept up in the college admissions frenzy, push their children to take an excessive number of honors and AP classes. Rigor is great, but excessive rigor only leads to sleepless nights, anxiety, and a shortage of time to enjoy one’s high school days. Let your child ultimately make the call on what type of schedule they can handle while still maintaining sanity.

2.  Don’t sweat the summers. Your child does not need to spend his/her vacation doing something absurdly original and high brow. Running with wild boars in Paraguay or hang gliding over the Zambezi River will not win you any more points with admissions officers than volunteering at the SPCA down the street or slopping together $5 Footlongs at Subway.  Expensive summer programs at prestigious colleges and universities are likewise unnecessary expenditures that add little or no edge in the admissions game.

3. Pushing a particular college on your child because you think it will be their golden ticket to the good life is not a helpful or realistic message in the college selection process. It’s vital to look at an undergraduate education as part of a bigger picture. Championing a “University X or bust” mindset will only add undue stress to a student’s life.

What helps

1. Think of yourself less as the manager of your child’s application process and more as the quality control inspector. Students are often self-motivated about their top-choice schools but sometimes get a bit lax formulating a backup plan. Parents should emphasize the importance of an academic safety school and also a financial safety school.

2. Speak candidly with your son or daughter about the financial realities of their college search. Don’t go into this process with an Enron-style business plan and assume that tuition money will fall out of the sky. Most teenagers have about as much financial sense as…well…Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling. Students absolutely need mom and dad’s help and guidance in this area. If loans are going to be part of the picture, parents should have a lengthy and number-driven conversation about how debt will impact young adulthood.

3. Actively encourage your student to take ownership of the admissions process. Here’s a brutally honest fact: Admissions offices cringe when they see emails from parents asking about the status of “our” application. Next year, your child will be doing their own laundry, procuring their own meals, and hopefully learning to navigate the world successfully as a young adult. Let them start now.

Final thoughts: Parents should periodically take time to self-assess: am I appropriately-involved or overly-involved? It’s natural to cross boundaries with our children because we love them and want to give them every advantage in life that we possibly can. However, the first time we catch ourselves going overboard shouldn’t be when the police arrive at our door to deliver a restraining order.