Back to School for seniors means strategizing regarding soliciting strong letters of recommendation. Schools usually ask for two letters, and students should think about highlighting different facets of their academic lives. Often that means asking for one letter from a Math or Science teacher, and the other from a Humanities teacher. Instructors who taught you junior year are the best for this task since your work is fresh in their minds and they had you in class for a full year; however, if you have a senior teacher who taught you in a previous grade—like freshmen or sophomore year—they will know you well enough to write a compelling letter. A teacher who also coached you in a sport or club like Mock Trial is also a good bet.
Another thing to consider: which teachers saw you at your best: Which classes did you participate in the most? Did you ever attend office hours? Did you go above and beyond by doing extra work or writing extra pages on an essay? Did you help other students who were struggling? Did you ever bring the teacher articles that you found that touched on subjects explored in class? Did the teacher ever use your work as an example? Did you write that teacher a letter at the end of the year telling her how much you enjoyed her class?
How to ask for a letter or recommendation:
Once you have decided on a teacher to approach, collect all of the materials you will need. Prepare for the meeting by printing out a resume or having it ready to send to the teacher. In addition, before the meeting, reflect on how you will ask; be ready to tell the teacher what you loved about her class and which topics excited you the most. You might even find a copy of a paper or project that you aced.
Once you have all of your materials collected, email the teacher for an appointment, or stop by her (virtual) office hours. Ask in person via Zoom if possible, but if you can’t, email is fine. Don’t be stuffy, but be fairly formal in the email. Include your resume and a samples of work as attachments as well. Also, make sure that you write the teacher a thank you card or email a few weeks later, acknowledging how much work it is to write letters of recommendation and how grateful you are for her help in your college search.
That’s it! You can check letters of recommendation off of your list.
Fallout from this year’s application season is starting to take shape, and it’s becoming clear that applying to college next year will be more difficult and nuanced.
Strategies to make your applications stand out
The Test Optional Trap
Yes, schools are increasingly going test optional next year—including the UCs, but that only complicates the process for most applicants. First, “test optional” does not mean “test blind.” Schools that are test blind will not look at scores at all, so all applicants are on equal footing. Test optional schools will still look at scores if you send them, but they will not count against you if you don’t submit them. The problem is that students who test well will send in their scores and will get the first round of slots, leaving fewer to fill with students who admissions officers see as a bit of a gamble who do not submit their scores.
Also, if you want to apply for merit aid, you will probably need to submit scores regardless. Fairtest has a comprehensive list of test-optional schools.So, most students should still probably take the ACT or the SAT for this application cycle.
Next, some current seniors who have been accepted to college for the 2020-21 year are deferring or taking gap years because they don’t want to take online classes. What does this mean for next year’s applicants? Some predict up to 10% fewer available spots.
Loss of Extracurriculars
The third challenge is that with school closures in the spring of this year, many students did not have the opportunity to engage in activities that could add heft to their applications. Athletes lost chances to show their prowess, club presidents lost valuable time demonstrating their leadership, and performers were not able to showcase their abilities. With pass/fail grades this spring, extracurriculars will become even more important, so the loss of spring activities is just that: a loss.
8 Steps You Can Take:
2. Even during COVID-19, stay active, passionate, and curious. Write an Op-ed for your local paper. Submit to writing contests. Take an online summer class or free MOOC (Massive open online courses–Harvard has many that are free this summer). Volunteer to do some virtual work for a local organization. Write and produce a podcast or blog with your friends. Write a play. Learn a new skill. Help elderly neighbors.
3. Do test prep (Khan Academy offers online, free lessons) and sign up to take the ACT or SAT. Wait to see your scores before you send them to schools.
4. Start the writing portions of the application. With fewer data points, the personal essay, the UC Personal Insight Questions, and supplement questions will become increasingly important. The Common Application essay questions will not change this year, so they are available now and the summer is the perfect time to work on these. Make sure your responses are compelling, demonstrate something beyond your GPA and testing capabilities, and illustrate your writing skills. Be authentic.
5. Take a rigorous class schedule senior year; your first quarter (if you are applying Early Decision or Action) and first semester grades (if you are applying Regular Decision) will undergo more scrutiny and hold more weight than usual, since for most, the junior year was interrupted.
6. Be judicious in asking for your letters of recommendation. Approach teachers who know you well, can fill in the blanks in your application, and who can talk about your academic strengths and leadership with details and anecdotes.
7. Use your counselor and ask for help if you need it.
8. Start the process early, proofread every part of your application, and meet deadlines.
For students who work diligently all year, summer may seem like an oasis in the middle of a desert. Yes, summer should be a time to recharge and spend time with family and friends, but it’s also the perfect time to explore and develop new skills and interests. And though it may seem early, February and March are prime times to make plans and apply to programs.
Colleges want to see that your child is curious and motivated—and there are many ways to demonstrate that. Are some activities better than others? Not really. It’s more what the student does with the experience. If she has a job working at a pet store and wants to be a veterinarian, then that makes total sense. If the student wants to go into computer science and spends part of the summer taking a computer animation class, that works, too. In addition, when it comes time to write the personal essay for college applications, meaningful summer activities often provide fodder for the stories students tell.
A few summer options that are fun and stretch students (so students AND parents will be happy):
Take a class
High schools, colleges, and community colleges offer myriad classes over the summer. These include standard academic classes which might help your child level up in a subject (like math or science), or explore a discipline that their school doesn’t offer, like Anthropology. But they could also take the opportunity to experience something that they are passionate about, like journalism or a language. A quick look at Santa Monica College’s offerings include animation, jewelry design, creative writing, fashion and design marketing, kinesiology, and religious studies. The California State School for the Arts also has a fabulous program where kids can live in real dorms for a month and take classes in dance, music, theater, visual arts, and more. Don’t wait just for the summer, though, the Grammy Museum offers a free photography camp in the spring.
Get an old fashioned job
Having a job shows that your child knows how to handle responsibility and money. It also demonstrates that she has grit and can stick with something. If a summer job also connects to an academic or extracurricular interest, even better!
If your student is interested in cinematography, HBO and Warner Brothers, among others, offer summer internships. Is art history your child’s passion? The Getty Museum offers summer internships where students can act as gallery guides, help with STEAM programming, or expand their classical Latin language skills. Stanford also has a cool, free internship program that is STEM focused and allows students to do cutting edge research. Microsoft also offers internships to students who live in a 50 mile radius of their campus. Is your child a budding scientist? Places like the Lundquist Institute take a few students every year and give them hands on learning experiences in a lab. City of Hope also offers high school students research opportunities.
Volunteering at a patchwork of different places doesn’t make meaningful connections, and colleges aren’t impressed by sheer numbers of hours. What they want to see is a commitment and a passion for the work. Help your child find something that connects to her interests. Does she think that she might want to be a nurse or doctor? Check out a local hospitals’ needs. Does your child like animals? Perhaps he would like to volunteer at a Zoo, or with a city program, like LA Animal services?
Start a business
Entrepreneurial skills are highly coveted in this economy. Starting one’s own business or non profit shows curiosity and ingenuity. Does your child make something? Let her try her hand at creating a business plan and selling it. Does he like to walk dogs? Let him start a neighborhood business.
Teachers fear the dreaded “Summer slide” that happens when students don’t attend daily classes. Studies support this, showing that students lose up to 20% of the valuable reading skills that they build up during the school year. How to combat it? By reading. Reading continues to develop vocabulary, comprehension, and even help with writing. So over the summer, make a habit of visiting the library or bookstore every two weeks and make sure that you are modeling reading at home—this is one of the best ways to cultivate a reader.