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What’s New in College Applications in 2015-2016: New Wrinkles for the University of California and How to Get a Letter of Recommendation

In College Demographics, Letters of Recommendation for College, Sexual Identity in College Applications, Stressors as an Application Advantage, U.C. Berkeley Application, University of California Application on July 17, 2015 at 10:22 am

Who should this post–anybody applying to a University of California campus; anybody particularly interested in U.C. Berkeley; anybody who needs to get a letter of recommendation; and anybody interested in enrollment categories for sexual identity–an evolving field, as you will see.

Changes for the University of California, Berkeley application.

New Wrinkle #1:  More Recommendations Allowed–and How To Ask for a Letter of Recommendation.

U.C. Berkeley is piloting an admissions policy allowing two letters of recommendation.  If this seems like a small thing, multiply it by 75,000, which is my lowball estimate for the number of applicants to Berkeley this coming year.

This optional letter of recommendation adds to an already very large paper load that will have Berkeley hiring at least 100 outside application readers to support the  staff on campus.   Reinforcing my point that you need to give the application webpage of each university a close read, so far U.C.B. is the only campus in the U.C. system to announce this two-recommendation policy–and this change suggests that they are continuing to tinker with their holistic evaluations and feel the need for more information.

What should you do?  Get the second letter, of course.  But please do not try to send more than two letters. Or candy, or personal notes or any other extras not explicitly identified by the school.

Here is how to go about getting letters of recommendation:  If you haven’t been cultivating your counselor and a few teachers, you had better put some time in your calendar to visit a few teachers and your counselor in the opening weeks of school.  Choose teachers you had a good relationship with in subjects that you like.

Counselors are almost always a must for letters of recommendation, and they are uniquely situated to give a recommendation that is relevant to your specific school and situation, but I advise leaving counselors off the casual visit list for the first week or two  of school–if you need to make a class change or have some other business in the first week or two, then yes, use that appointment to  tell them you will be needing two rec letters and you’d like their help on this. Be warm and polite.   If you are stuck with a bad counselor, however, it’s better to opt for two teacher recs or to choose some other adult with a position that would get some respect (your neighbor Joe may like you, but unless he’s your neighbor Joe, VP for Google or Supreme Court Justice of the State of Wherever You Live, I would stick to school teachers and officials for this.  There are interesting stories of celebrity letters of recommendation that did not work out or that backfired, by the way.)

Do keep  in mind that it is crazy hectic for counselors in weeks one and two as they handle early year change of schedule requests, et al.  Be patiently and politely persistent, as needed.

For your teachers, however,  the first week of school is usually a good time to say hello.  They have a lot to do, but usually do not yet have a large paper load sitting on the desk, so visit two or three favorite teachers from your junior year, then follow up again once or twice before you make the ask for a letter or recommendation.   And make the ask by the end of the first month of school if you have any early apps–I like my clients to allow a two-week window for letters of recommendation.   Never ask for a letter the day before it is due unless you come bearing gifts and genuflecting.  The stronger and more genuine your connection to any person writing a letter of recommendation, the better chance that you will get a good letter.  M.I.T. has emphasized recommendations for years, and what they say about their letters applies to all letters of recommendation:

“. . .letters of recommendation hold substantial weight in our admissions decisions. A well-written letter for an outstanding applicant can highlight impressive characteristics beyond his/her own self-advocacy. We are looking for people who have and will make an impact – the difference between a letter that supports and a letter that raves about a special student.

Both guidance counselor and teacher evaluations are most helpful when they are specific and storied. They should provide us with the information and impressions we cannot glean from the rest of the application. Try to give a complete sketch of the student and the context of his/her accomplishments. Support your conclusions with facts and anecdotes whenever possible. A story or incident that conveys the character or merit of the individual is more telling than a mere statement like ‘Mary is mature.’ ”

There you have it–try to set up the information you provide to letter-writers for any university so it feeds into the M.I.T. description above.

Finally, you should be shaping the letters by providing information that you think will help you to the people who will write your recommendation.   Writing up an outline, having a focused summary, these are good ideas.  Providing a huge resume, maybe not so much.  Pick the things you need to show from the information below, and write up one page to offer to the people you ask to write you a letter.  For more, look below at what the U.C. asks for:

U.C. Berkeley’s Guidelines for Letters of Recommendation

Guidelines for the letters:  At least one letter must be from an instructor, the second from somebody you select who knows you well (could also be a teacher),   the letters are recommended to be one page long . . . and here is what the letters should address:

• Academic performance and potential (both overall and in the context of the class)
• Love of learning
• Leadership (in school, family, or community)
• Persistence in the face of challenges
• Cross-cultural engagement
• Originality/Creativity
• Demonstrated concern for others

New Wrinkle #2: The University of California system and the Politics of Sex

Or maybe just the demographics of the student body.  That is what the U.C. says in explaining their new option to identify your sexual preference–this is system wide, not just for Berkeley–and is in addition to the existing identity choices you will make.   I think the visibility argument made by those in the LGBT community who argued for outing people in the closet in recent decades has proven to be true, given the rapid change in social attitudes toward gay marriage, et al, as LGBT people have indeed become more visible (sometimes unwillingly).   I think the U.C. is also correct in arguing that the information helps them to allocate resources for health, counseling, and other services.

On the other hand, and maybe I am just showing my age, I am not a big fan of passing over personal information in most circumstances, and the more personal, the more reluctant I am to offer it.  But leaving aside my personal feelings and the fact that a decent number of high school seniors still have a lot of questions about their sexual identity, let’s look at what’s in it for you:

Should You State Your Sexual Preference/Identity?

Whether the U.C. will, going forward, try  to balance enrollment categories like percentage of LGBT students, or cohorts within this category is an interesting question–certainly the U.C. and other holistic schools try to include a representative sample of students in other categories, so why wouldn’t they try to create a “balance” in sexual identities, on campus as well?  Over time of course.  This is their first year with this option, so there will not likely be any formal percentage of balance they look for in their results.

As for a possible edge in applications this year, U.C. readers are instructed to look for “stressors” that may promote a student–like being a low-income student from a rough neighborhood, which can help promote an applicant in the holistic review (click here if you do not know what a holistic evaluation is and entails:  the secret to college admissions.)  So if you are LGBT, I would recommend identifying here this year, particularly if you are going to be bringing this up in an essay and/or it has been a stressor for you.

It is still not easy even in ‘liberal’ environments to be openly LGBT, and any obvious obstacles you have overcome now become an argument that you are a good candidate for admission–a person with good grades and extracurriculars who has had to tough out a bad situation while getting those grades and accomplishments gets an edge over good grades and accomplishments by a student on  Easy Street.

And while you want to be very cautious about pandering to your perception of an average U.C.  app reader’s feelings–which are impossible to know, though likely fairly liberal in sexual politics–and equally cautions about claiming victimhood or otherwise using an obvious emotional appeal, the facts of your life are the facts.  Just choose wisely which ones need sharing in applications.

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