Letters of Rec - Ellie

Letters of recommendation: The Hunger Games of college admissions

Story by Jayden Tran
Staff Writer

Illustration by Ellie Nakamura
Graphic Designer

Required by a majority of prestigious universities during the application process, letters of recommendation have risen to prominence in the holistic evaluation of students. Teacher testimonials have proliferated in the overall application with studies showing that emotional quotient has become as significant for college acceptances as intellectual quotient. With a shift in views from intellectualism to compassion, students strive to be highlighted as more resilient and emotionally adept over the standard traits of smart or hard-working when compared to their peers.

Students in high school struggle to find teachers who can write their letters of recommendation. Seniors have a unique perspective that rarity means a more important and well-written letter, and this is only furthered by the infighting that occurs in finding recommendations. Teachers set limits on the amount of letters they write for their students and the scarcity of teachers who will write letters causes panic, stress, and tension in times of immense anxiety. The very exclusivity of  coveted letters of recommendation from specific teachers forces cutthroat competition amongst seniors and fuels toxicity that administration attempts to deny.

Seniors on campus are forced to navigate the many systems of teacher recommendations due to a lack of uniformity among teachers. From lotteries to polite queries, South Pasadena students often get lost in the middle of administration workshops, staff endorsement, and their own futures. However, the contrived systems that colleges require for letters add onto the stress and pressure students face in trying to find a letter in time for their application. 

Specifications on who can write letters only further the problems for seniors. For a majority of college applicants, competitive schools require several academic teachers to write letters for students. These teachers must be considered academic, as opposed to those that teach extracurriculars or leadership that would showcase a student’s skills outside of the classroom, seniors grapple with finding a teacher who meets those requirements and can express their passions from a perspective that expands beyond solely academia.

“The most meaningful and personal experiences that students have on campus are non-academic,” senior Sam Grotenstein said. “I do sewing club, speech and debate, and other extracurriculars and it is weird to have [an AP Statistics teacher] have to explain all of that to a college.” 

On the other hand, a large part of teacher exclusivity comes with a lack of reparations for writing letters of recommendation. Most seniors seek to receive recommendation from junior year teachers due to the common perspective that this year is most competitive and most significant. This notion leads to an influx of students inquiring of teachers, who can be seen as targets, teaching specific courses such as AP English Language. 

“I have about 50 to 60 requests and for my own mental health and teaching ability I cannot write a letter for everyone,”  Mark Afram, one of two AP Lang teachers on the South Pasadena campus, said. “I think there’s competition between students on who writes their letter… There’s a scarcity mentality and students believe there aren’t enough teachers to write the letters.”

This scarcity mentality is presented in several forms on campus. From the start of a student’s time on campus, they are thrown into a competition that can determine their future. With the growing importance of getting into a good college, students have to play their cards right to be recognized by teachers on campus. These facades stay present until application season, where seniors scramble to contact their teachers to receive commendation for their time in the classroom.

The many students vying for recommendations inflict turmoil for staff as well. Teachers are challenged through the same processes that seniors undergo during college application season. The lack of compensation that administration offers staff means teachers must utilize their own free time to recognize students. Teachers are stuck in between a rock and a hard place, wanting to support students but not being offered the support from administration to write these letters. Without stipends, compensations, or incentives, teachers are compelled to set limits on recommendation letters for their own health and well-being.

“It’s a tricky needle to thread because of the competing interests of students, the desire of teachers to help students, and the issue of compensation,”  Andrew McGough, the only AP Calculus teacher, said. “Those are the three triad of issues with letters of recommendations.”

Quality letters of recommendation are slowly becoming more essential for college applications as social and tactful traits are sought after by colleges as opposed to intellectual rigor and competition. This problem will continue to spiral out of hand as more students are in need of letters of recommendation yet many teachers can only write a handful. In a time of stress, scarcity, and stupor, the last thing that seniors should struggle with is finding any individual on campus who could represent their identity. 

“I think teachers and students would appreciate more guidance and support in this process. College admissions is stressful enough without creating The Hunger Games of admissions,” says Afram.

And despite the stress of both students and teachers, administration falls short in taking the necessary actions to support both seniors and staff. In a time that can only be perceived as the Hunger Games of college admission, it seems as though seniors undergo a cutthroat competition to rise above their peers and succeed.

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