Surge in summer rec letters burdening teachers

February 12, 2019 — by Neeti Badve and Kaitlyn Tsai

With summer fast approaching, dozens of students are scrambling to submit summer program applications. In the meantime, many teachers, especially STEM teachers, are drowning in a massive influx of recommendation letter requests and some say they can’t handle it anymore.

The frenzy to attend popular programs such as COSMOS appears to be a rising trend. Just last year, the science department alone wrote letters for approximately 85 students, according to physics teacher Kirk Davis. These 85 students applied for an average of three programs per student, and seven asked for two recommendation letters, adding to a total of 92 letters.

In the end, he said 53 students did not attend any programs.

Consequently, many science teachers have established policies for summer recommendation letters. Chemistry teacher Kathryn Nakamatsu restricts the number of letters for each program to 10 students, while Davis is only writing letters for internships or jobs.  

“Of the 85, two-thirds, there’s no feedback; there’s nothing,” Davis said. “They may not even be going! So what’s the point of doing it?”

On its website, COSMOS announced that it would not be requiring recommendation letters for this application season due to the “evolving labor dispute in a number of California school districts”; however, the burden of writing letters for many other programs, like the Research Science Institute (RSI), the Stanford Institutes of Medicine Summer Research Program (SIMR) and pre-medical programs at colleges like the University of Irvine, remains.

“Being swamped with rec letters feels overwhelming, especially when I’ve just finished college letters,” Nakamatsu said. “It feels like I end up writing letters all year. I don’t think students realize how bad it is.”

Typically, recommendation letters for STEM programs require teachers to fill out questionnaires regarding a student’s ability in STEM-related topics. Additionally, most expect the teacher to provide more insight as to what kind of person the student is.

One recommendation letter can take significant time to draft and finalize, since they often require teachers to detail specific interactions with the student and anecdotes indicative to the student’s character. As a result, members of the science department require students who request letters to fill out an online questionnaire to assist with this process. Questions range from “Why do you want to participate in this particular program?” to “Give at least one lab/project/discussion question that you think really made you stand out from the rest of the students in your class.”

From the students’ perspective, these recommendation letter restrictions could force them to rework summer plans, which may have already been set for months.  

Sophomore Ritika Garg faced this dilemma after finding out she would not be able to get a recommendation letter.

“Restricting letters makes sense in the teachers’ perspective because they have to do a bunch of different things and write letters,” Garg said. “But in terms of my perspective, I thought it was really unfair because I had to completely change everything, and on top of that, all the other parts of writing summer apps can be really stressful.”

To come to a compromise between teachers and students, Garg suggested that if a teacher does reject a student, they provide or guide the student to an alternative and help them figure out their options.

Sophomore Adithya Nair has another solution altogether: getting letters of recommendation from people who are not science teachers at all.

Through Global Health club, Nair and other members go on international trips to Ecuador or China through a program called CFHI, and the program can help alleviate the recommendation letter workload for both students and teachers.

“Through programs like these, you can get letters from doctors at Stanford or international coordinators,” Nair said.

However, instead of only doing summer programs, both Davis and Nakamatsu urge students to consider experiences such as working at a job. They encourage students to go out and do something for the experience, not just for the sake of putting a prestigious name on their college applications.

“I think kids would get so much more experience if they actually went out and worked for a summer,” Davis said. “You’d have some spending money, you’d learn what happens to taxes, and you could write about your experience working and how much you learned about people.”

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