Teacher recommendations are a key component of most independent school admission decision making. While grades provide a mark of actual achievement in a class, teacher recommendations provide the context and the insight a simple grade cannot.
Imagine two scenarios. The student has a B+ in math, which seems perfectly respectful. In one scenario, the recommendation helps the admission committee realize that the student has missed some homework assignments and the teacher feels they are capable of much more but that the student has ‘settled’ for the B+. In the second scenario, the admission
committee learns via the school recommendation that this is one of the most challenging courses offered and that this student currently has the highest grade in the class, although it’s a B+ and not an A+. You can begin to see the value of recommendations to the admission committee.
So, who to ask? First, read the recommendation form. Too often families skip this key step because they already have a ‘favorite’ teacher in mind that they intend to ask. But start with reading the questions as they will reflect the values and priorities of the school to which you are applying. And then parent and child (assuming the child is older than about fourth grade) should have a discussion together about which teacher might be in the best position to answer those particular questions.
As parent and child talk about their options, it might seem counterintuitive but they should consider the teacher of the class in which the child struggles the most. Let’s imagine two scenarios again. Your child has an A+ in history class. It’s obvious to child and parents that this is the recommendation they want. What might this teacher say? The student is strong in history, does well in class, and is among the best students the teacher has that year. This same child has a C+ in science. What might the science teacher say? This student has worked incredibly hard, come for extra help and cared enough to seek assistance, has a strong work ethic combined with a drive to do well, and has continued to improve, despite science not coming easily to them. The science teacher wishes they had more students like this.
Much of what the history teacher said could have been assumed by the admission committee, given the A+ grade. The C+ in science, however, could have been assumed to be because the student didn’t try, wasn’t bright, or didn’t care. In the case of the recommendation from the science teacher, the candidate for admission has likely demonstrated character traits that the school will find very attractive.
The point of admission to independent schools is for the school to control and engineer a class that will be successful at the school, in all the many ways one can be successful. A thoughtful recommendation can be a key asset to the admission committee in understanding not only who the applicant is as a student but who they are as a person. Choose wisely.