Helping students get edge in university admissions

Times Staff Writer

Science teacher Rod Ziolkowski is spending his winter break working, just as he did Thanksgiving and practically every evening and weekend since the fall. Ziolkowski, dedicated as he is, is not preparing lesson plans but writing college recommendations for his students at Whitney High School in Cerritos. He expects to crank out 100 or more letters by the time admissions deadlines arrive in January.

He has plenty of company. At public and private schools from coast to coast, teachers are engaged in one of the most time-honored but overlooked aspects of the admissions process.

A strong teacher recommendation can add flesh, bones and personality to a packet of test scores and grade point averages and convince a college admissions director that a particular student would be a valuable asset on campus.

Many teachers -- already busy scoring exams, coaching, advising extracurricular clubs and performing other administrative duties -- find themselves swamped writing recommendations. They might be more stressed than ever because of the trend of students applying to more colleges, necessitating more letters.


“In times past we would discourage multiple applications because it would mean unnecessary work on everyone’s part,” said Michael Mulligan, head of the Thacher School, an Ojai boarding school whose 67 senior class members are all applying to competitive four-year colleges. “Now, unless they’re outstanding in every way, students just don’t know what’s going to happen.”

As a result, some schools are asking juniors to line up letter writers in the spring for the upcoming admissions season, holding workshops for teachers on how to craft the most effective recommendations, encouraging students to choose not their most popular teachers but those who can best describe their academic abilities, and suggesting that teachers limit the number of letter requests they agree to.

More schools are also beginning to compensate teachers who write an inordinate number of letters, usually with a comp day. At Whitney, a foundation set up by parents and alumni pays teachers for their efforts.

Yet for most instructors, the personal time devoted to letter writing is a tough, largely unpaid part of their job. Most public and private schools have few formal guidelines, other than encouraging students to request letters well in advance (and to enlist a teacher who is likely to write something positive).


Each letter can take several hours, with the writer searching for the elusive essence of a student. The task is made harder when several students apply to the same college and ask the same teacher to write recommendations that are likely to be read by the same admissions officer.

Though most teachers eventually will be asked to write a recommendation, public schoolteachers can be especially taxed because of large class sizes and the challenge of establishing strong student/teacher relationships. However, it is also likely that a greater number of public school students focus on the University of California and California State University systems, which do not require letters of recommendation.

Daniel Victor, an 11th-grade English teacher at Hamilton High School in West Los Angeles, is writing 37 recommendations for one student. Though much of the text can be copied, each letter has to be tailored to each college. Victor said he sometimes worries whether he’s sent the right letter to the right school, and if a Harvard letter mistakenly put into a Yale envelope does indeed get forwarded.

Once, he said, he forgot to send a letter before the admissions deadline, but wrote an apology letter explaining that it wasn’t the student’s fault. Every once in a while, he’ll receive a note from a college thanking him for his effort.


“It’s like a blessing and curse,” said Victor, who’s taught for 42 years. “It’s so much extra work to do, yet it’s a rewarding experience. If a kid gets in to the college they wanted, you like to feel like you’ve helped them.”

Much of the recommendation workload falls on 11th-grade English teachers. Most private colleges require two or three letters, one from a counselor and two from teachers, usually one each from a core subject area such as science and humanities. Students usually pick teachers with whom they’ve spent the most recent full year.

Said Elaine Berman, director of college counseling at the private Wildwood School in West Los Angeles: “Students do tend to ask English teachers because they tend to write good letters.”

Tyrone Sandaal, who teaches ninth- and 11th-grade English honors classes at New Roads School, another Westside private campus, agreed.


“As an English teacher, I can’t say, ‘No, I don’t feel like writing,’ ” said Sandaal, who expects to write 10 to 12 letters this year. “And, actually, that’s my problem. As a writer, the letters are a piece of text for me and I’m very deliberate when I compose. Over time, it actually increases in complexity because I don’t want any two letters to sound the same.”

Derick Perry, who teaches 10th- and 12th-grade English at Thacher, said his letters might have added weight coming from a small boarding school where teachers live full time with students and get to know them outside of class.

“Especially for students who are not as talented as others, I can be honest about their academic promise, but I also know them well enough to highlight aspects of their personality that colleges would need to know,” he said.

Barry Smolin, a ninth- and 12th-grade humanities teacher at Hamilton High, said his most memorable recommendation was for one of his best students, who was wait-listed at Brown University.


“I wrote an appeal letter, four pages long, extolling her virtues as an amazing student who had founded and edited a campus literary magazine and did a remarkable senior project creating a book of poetry,” Smolin said.

Smolin also took the unusual step of calling the admissions office. The student was accepted and is now working on a doctorate in literature at UC Berkeley.

Wildwood physics teacher Tengiz Bibilashvili recently finished a letter for a student who competed in South Korea as part of an international team of young physicists (he was also the coach). During the competition, most of the group, including Bibilashvili, wanted to give up on a problem, but the student persisted and was finally able to solve it. The episode became the focus of his recommendation.

“I can show a real personality that can never be seen in a transcript,” Bibilashvili said.


It is that descriptive quality that catches the attention of Mary Backlund, director of admissions at Bard College, a small liberal arts campus in New Hampshire that is popular with California students. She can immediately tell the thoughtful letters from the cut-and-paste jobs from teachers who are distracted or don’t know a student very well.

“I can almost read a recommendation and tell you what I’m going to do with that student,” Backlund said. “A good recommendation will capture a student’s intellectual skills and interests, and I don’t even have to look at a student’s resume.”

The school requires three recommendations and expects to receive 5,000 applications for its 500 openings by the Jan. 15 deadline. Backlund will glance at all 15,000 recommendations, so pithy is good.

“You try not to judge a student based on the wonderful writing ability of the teacher, but what they’re saying about a student’s characteristics,” she said.


Like Ziolkowski, many teachers say they believe that in reality, scores and grades and other parts of the application play a more important role in admission. But he isn’t complaining.

“I’m privileged to teach at a school of very capable kids who have big dreams, rather than spending this time on discipline problems or at parent conferences of disturbed kids,” he said.

As he spoke recently, a stack of recommendations waited to be mailed for several of his students, including Allen Chen, 17, who is applying to several schools including Stanford, MIT, USC and Carnegie Mellon.

Chen wants to major in engineering, so Ziolkowski was a natural for a recommendation. But he’s hoping the teacher will highlight his growth as a person as well as his academic record.


“I used to be a shy person,” Chen said. “I’ve learned to be active in class, to speak my opinion, to express my social side. I feel like he knows me best.”