Monday, February 18, 2013

How To Ask for a Recommendation

Ricochet spoke of a parent asking for a recommendation and mentioned this article detailing the tips for getting one from any teacher.  Here's what works for me:

Why ask me?

Ask me for a recommendation if you've taken a complete course from me and you tried your best in that class. It's even better if you've had me more than once. Writing a recommendation for someone I had in the fall semester three years ago is tough. I have no idea of growth or current ability. If you've only been in my class for a couple of weeks/months, I'm not the person to ask. If you skipped a lot or didn't do any work, ask a teacher for whom you DID work hard.

... poor behavior in class, frequent absences/tardies, chronic late assignments or incidents of academic dishonesty are reasons for declining ... Poor choices made at athletic and co-curricular events or crass behavior in non-classroom environments ...
Yeah, it matters. Childish or stupid behavior stays in my mind. Stealing someone's candy and throwing at another student, shooting spitballs in class ... really? Got caught drinking ... it depends. Did you admit the mistake and learn from it? I see you in lots of places and I remember both the good and the bad. If the bad outweighs the good, ask someone else.

Being an "A" student is not a requirement because I could talk about your willingness to work hard and persevere even though math isn't your strong point. Colleges want to know that you'll fit it to their programs and those immeasurable qualities are important ... that's what the recommendation is for ... those things not on the transcript.

I won't lie
TO you
and I won't lie
FOR you.
We also need to define the difference between an evaluation and a recommendation:

If I agree to write a recommendation, I will say good things. In my mind, there can be no bad recommendation - the meaning of recommend includes the idea that I believe you are a good fit for the program or school. If I can't write positive things, I won't lie to you and I won't lie for you. An evaluation, on the other hand, is an honest assessment of the good and bad and may include wording that suggests against the placement.

These are totally different animals and you must be clear on that difference. Some applications ask for one or the other specifically. Don't mess that up.

So, you've decided to ask me for a recommendation.

Ask personally and early. 

This is critical for me. If you can't come and see me personally to ask for the recommendation, then you have no business moving on to college. If your mother emails me instead, the answer will be "I don't think that I can write a recommendation for your child." If guidance has to email me and the words "deadline is next week" appear anywhere in the conversation, then you have failed.

Time: I can whip up a recommendation fairly quickly, but I'd like some lead time. Three to four weeks minimum is a good length of time.  That is, I'd like 3-4 weeks before you plan on sending the rest of the application, not 3-4 weeks before the drop-dead deadline for admissions. If you know that you will be asking in five or six months, tell me now. What possible reason could there be to wait? Planning ahead is the mark of an adult.

Bottom Line: This is YOUR future. You need to be planning for it and be responsible enough to get  it going. Everyone is here to help you by doing our part but not by doing your part for you.

Minimize the clerical work as much as possible.
This is just being polite. Fill out your name and all of the information that you know. If you are applying to ten schools, with ten different forms, then it is imperative that you do this. If we are using an online form with a 120 character URL, I need the exact URL sent in an email.

If the recommendation is something I can type, I will. I will send a copy of everything to the office in case we are out of session and they need another copy and I will give you a copy of everything I write.

Envelopes should be stamped, addressed, return addressed, and so on. It sounds picky, but it makes a difference. Splurge on the self-adhesive mailing envelopes - I appreciate not having to lick ten of the cheaper ones.

Be neat. 

If you can type it, then type it.  If your handwriting sucks, then you need to improve it. If it's barely legible, that reflects badly on you. Everything you put on the application will be looked at. If you can manage it, run the envelopes through the printer as well.

Follow Instructions

If the form says "Student will fill out the top of this form," then you should do that before handing it to me. If you can't do that simple task properly, it tells me you aren't serious about your plans. If the header says "Evaluation" then don't ask for a recommendation (and vice versa). If the instructions say for me to mail the recommendation separately, then have all the envelopes and such ready for me.

Many of the admissions decisions are, unfortunately, handled long before the admissions people read and consider applications. Your folder at College begins with a checklist. If anything is incomplete or missing, the folder is put aside and ignored until everything is complete or the deadline has passed. If you can't read and follow simple instructions, then why would the college waste its time on you? They have plenty of applications to pick through; any easy rejections are dealt with first. Of course, the check will be cashed before the folder is thrown away. This happens distressingly often. Don't let it happen to you.

Give me the list of your experiences.

Guidance has that form for you to tell me about yourself. Mention things that will help me make your case for you and allow me to be specific. List the awards you've earned, the volunteer work you've done, NHS and other societies you're a member of, History Day, Governor's Institute, Odyssey of the Mind, and son on. If you were student council, mention that.  If you ran a significant portion of Winter Carnival, definitely mention that.

The reason is two-fold; you'll be reminding me of things you've done which will help me even if I don't write about them specifically and this will be the source for your applications.

With regards to math classes you taken with me, include things that you enjoyed or that were meaningful to you or that you found directly useful in tech, for instance. I might never mention it, but it will help me in writing about you.

That's it.

Now it's my turn. If I tell you to check back with me in 3 weeks, then I am giving you permission to "check back with me in 3 weeks." Don't nag. Don't remind me every day or even every other day. It'll be done.

That's my responsibility.

Further reading: 

Read the article I linked to for other insights that apply at bigger schools or for other teachers.  I know most of the students at my school and I've had almost all of you in class at some time or other so "Practice your pitch", for instance, isn't as big a deal for me as it might be for other teachers.

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