Letters of Recommendation in the Age of the Online Classroom

Letters of Recommendation in the Age of the Online Classroom

By now, most students have started their 2020-2021 school year. For many students, this means the start of another semester of virtual learning. This poses one big challenge for high school seniors: teacher recommendations.

How can you get a meaningful and personal recommendation when you cannot see your teacher in person?

Well, first, let’s discuss why recommendations from teachers and guidance counselors are important.

Why Recommendations Matter

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, letters of recommendation have proven to be extremely important in the application process. Colleges want students who will enrich the campus environment. Recommendation letters are the most direct way for admissions committees to determine how a student is in the classroom. This goes beyond numbers and GPAs. Recommendation letters speak to the student’s character and compatibility with the school.

To be fair, there are very few teachers or counselors who would write a blatantly bad recommendation letter. Plus most students know not to ask teachers with whom they have conflict. However, submitting  a bland recommendation letter is about as helpful as not submitting one at all. After all, you want to be memorable to the admissions office, not just pass as average.

Recommendation letters often go hand-in-hand with student GPAs. The brightest students may have less than perfect GPAs. This usually signifies a less-than-great relationship with teachers and/or counselors. So recommendation letters are windows into the very deeply-rooted aspects of a student’s performance.

In the context of the pandemic, so many aspects of the application that used to be considered black-and-white are now gray.

Test cancellations have forced students to either settle with what they already have or give up testing altogether. GPAs are no longer clear-cut indicators of student performance due to the rocky transition to virtual learning. Ironically, this means that colleges will need to depend on the traditionally gray aspects of the application (i.e. recommendation letters, application essays) to bring legitimacy to the numbers.

What does this mean?

This means that recommendation letters are more important than ever this year. Which brings us back to our first question:

How can you get a meaningful recommendation letter from someone you no longer see in-person?

Whom You Should Ask

Before getting into the how, we need to discuss the who. Whom should you ask and whom should you not ask for recommendation letters?

You should ask teachers who you think know you best.

What teachers do you have a good relationship with? Whom have you had more than one class with? Whom did you go to for extra help or to ask for advice about things outside of the classroom?

Generally, you will need 1-2 recommendation letters, so it’s a good idea to ask one science or math teacher and one humanities teacher. The combination of the two letters gives a more holistic image of who you are as a student.

You also want to ask for recommendation letters from teachers who taught the classes in which you did well. If you got a B in physics, but an A in AP Calculus, it just makes sense to ask your AP Calculus teacher for a recommendation letter, as this teacher will have more to say about your achievements in the classroom.

You should not ask for recommendation letters from teachers who taught classes you did not enjoy or do well in.

Naturally, if you enjoyed a class, you probably participated more and showed more active engagement. For most students, if they do not enjoy a class, it is directly represented by an unsatisfactory grade.

Of course, there are exceptions. If you did not enjoy the class but made an immense effort to do well, reached out to your teacher frequently, and showed diligence and engagement in class, then it is definitely worth considering asking that teacher for a recommendation letter.

Recommendation Letters at Cyber-High School

Now, back again to our first question: how?

Consider the online classroom with the same mindset as you would consider the in-person classroom. Below are some tips for succeeding in the virtual classroom while also obtaining that memorable letter of recommendation:

Tip #1. Office Hours

Go to office hours as often as you can, and ask thoughtful questions.

Tip #2. Ask for Help

If online learning is difficult for you, as it is for many students, ask your favorite teachers for advice and for extra help. 

Tip #3. Make a good impression

Show active engagement in the virtual classroom, and make sure to turn on audio and video as much as possible. Make sure the camera is pointed at your face, and not your ceiling, to show that you are fully engaged during the entire class time.

Tip #4. Communicate

Email your teachers with questions you have outside of the class time.

Tip #5. Go Beyond the Classroom

For the classes you especially enjoy, ask your teachers for suggestions on opportunities to learn that topic outside of the classroom (i.e. extracurricular activities that are safe during the pandemic).

Tip #6. Seek opportunities for  in-person teacher time

If your school offers hybrid learning, and if you feel safe going on campus, take the opportunity to see your teachers in person. Online teaching is just as difficult as, if not more difficult than, online learning! So an in-person meeting with your teachers will allow for your communication with them to be more smooth and comfortable.

Tip #7. Demonstrate humility and vulnerability

Even if the class is easy for you, if you approach it with the mentality that you have much more to learn, your teachers will realize this right away. Teachers catch on to hubris and lack of humility very quickly, and this is not the impression that you want to make.

Altogether, show that you are hungry for learning! Teachers naturally want to give more to those students who are receptive to their teaching and want to learn more.

Want more tips?

If you want more tips and guidance on how to make your college application as strong as possible, sign up for a free consultation to get started with our Pre-Road Map to College or Road Map to College programs!

Call us at 855-346-1410 or contact us here to get started!

Jaehee Ahn

Jaehee Ahn is MEK Review's Assistant Director of Academic Counseling Services and a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley. She is also an alumnus of MEK Review's SAT Prep program. If you have any questions about our College Counseling programs or wish to set up a consultation, you can email Jaehee at acs@mekreview.com.

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