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UC recommendation letters a daunting notion for teachers

By Megan Martin

Every year, teachers–especially those who teach juniors–write anywhere from 10 to 30 letters of recommendation for seniors applying to college.  With the University of Berkeley (UCB) now asking for letters of recommendation in some cases, the teachers believe that the consequences will exponentially increase the number of letters they will have to write each year.

In the past, the UC and CSU systems did not require or even accept letters of recommendation.  Starting in the fall of 2015, UCB will ask for two letters of recommendation (one from a teacher, one from anyone else the student chooses) from certain applicants about whom they wish to know more.  While the letters are highly recommended, they are not mandatory, and students who do not send one in are viewed in the same light as one who did, according to the university.

This is the first year that any UC has asked for letters of recommendation in their applications.  Many teachers have voiced concern that because so many students apply to UCB, they would have to write many more letters, which will take a lot more of their time.  “The junior teachers’ load will quadruple, and the counselors load will increase by a factor of 10,” said Cynthia Roenisch, who teaches English to sophomores through seniors.

In order to get a letter from many teachers, students need to complete a portfolio that will give the teachers a better look at who the students are outside of the classroom.  “On the students’ side, I have them put together a packet of work they have done in my class the year before, a resume, their current transcript and a statement of purpose,” said English teacher Chris Carman, who teaches all juniors.

Others such as AP government teacher Allison Goldberg also ask for student information before writing the letters. “You need to give me any of the paperwork that you would need from the colleges.  I need a transcript so I can see how well they have done.  I like to for sure have a resume, but it doesn’t have to be super formal,” Goldberg said.  “It has to lay out what this person has done besides just taking my class, a list of where they are going, and if they have written any college essays yet I would like to see those too.”

Counselor Janice Loy says that she asks for a completed profile packet from the student, which contains basic information such as extracurricular activities and what the student is interested in studying.  In addition, Loy asks for a personal statement from the student, as well as “anything else they wish me to incorporate in my letter,” said Loy.

All of the teachers interviewed expressed that they ask for these “portfolios” from the students in order to achieve a more holistic rationale of the students in and out of the classroom.

“It allows me to give the impression that I have the more global knowledge of the student instead of just the snapshot that I have from an English class,” said Carman.

Goldberg said that she wishes to learn “special things that make them unique that I would not know being with them for such a short time.”  When writing the letter, she wants to “focus on my relationship with the student and try to use really specific anecdotes so it doesn’t sound generic or fake.”

All teachers have reacted negatively towards the news that UCB will be asking for letters of recommendation from certain students.  A lot of students from Alameda High apply to UCB, so many teachers fear that their workload will become almost undoable.

“I think it is a horrible idea,” English teacher Judith Klinger said.  “I don’t think that it will get them the information that they want. Few teachers would write a negative letter of recommendation.  If we do a cost benefit analysis, the cost is enormous since virtually every student I have applies to one UC,” she added.

Roenisch believes that it is an admirable goal of UCB, because they are asking for recommendation letters with the idea that it will give them a more well-rounded look at who the student is and help them move beyond GPA and test scores.  But Roenisch fears that the impact on schools and teachers will be huge and overall negative.

Goldberg agrees.  “I think their purpose was to say ‘We want  more well-rounded students, we don’t just want to be looking at their tests’, but what they are going to end up generating is painful, unpaid work for teachers and scrambling for students,” said Goldberg.

Some of the main concerns that the teachers have is that this could possibly lead to a lot more time that teachers spend outside of the classroom writing letters of recommendation, as well as less detailed letters as a result of the lack of time they have to write them.

“It would take so many more hours out of the available amount of time there is in life. The only place it could come out of would be curriculum and grading,” Klinger said. “So in order to write letters of recommendation at that volume, I would have to grade less and plan my lessons less, which is very much to the detriment of the students.”

Loy said that she is already writing most of the letters of recommendation at home, so UCB requiring letters will add to the amount of work she has to do outside of the office.  She is afraid this will lead to the writing of lower quality and less thorough letters.

Carman also agrees that this will generate a “whole wave of requests.”  He fears that he will have to start turning down students because “it is not humanly possible to produce all these letters and do a good job on them.”

“The letters will end up, just by virtue of the sheer number, will just be bogus,” said Goldberg.


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