Last week I had a conversation with one of my students that made me so furious that I still can’t shake it. So I decided to write about it.

Warning: Rant to follow so please don’t read if you’re easily offended.

Anyhow, here’s the story.

I have a student I work with, let’s call him Joe. Joe is a senior and extremely busy trying to complete his college applications. He’s been making excellent progress towards his November 1 Early Action deadline for some highly selective schools. Joe has written an essay and several supplements, he’s enrolled in several AP classes, and he’s over-committed as an officer of 3 different clubs at school. This kid is busy.

Yet now he’s having trouble securing teacher recommendations.

It turns out that many of Joe’s teachers from last year (11th grade) are refusing to write recommendations – not just for him but for all students – because last year’s curriculum was delivered entirely online and they had little chance to get to know their students.

This speaks volumes about The Lost Year of 2020-21 and the COVID-impacted school year. It makes me wonder what, if anything, our kids actually learned. Most kids didn’t go to school, neither physically nor mentally.

It tells me that for many, the school year was at best, a joke; and at worst, a year-long lesson on how NOT to adapt on the fly, build resilience and relationships, find your own accountability and independence, etc. (all CRITICAL skills for the future).

Unfortunately, this is what happens when we have an outdated, underfunded (or mis-funded) system no longer capable of delivering on its original and frankly, sole, obligation – educating young people for the future.

Yes, I know it’s harder for teachers to form relationships  — or to impart information to a screen with no requirement for participation from your “absently present” pupils who were, by their own admissions, often asleep, or playing video games, or watching Netflix, or swimming in the pool, or who knows what else…

Ok, it’s harder to connect, to teach and to learn. But it’s not impossible. We can and should expect and do better.

What a missed opportunity the last year has been. What if, instead of throwing up our arms at how hard it was to teach/learn under these circumstances, we, instead, found little ways to adapt – maybe with outdoor learning or using empty office space with built in connectivity to provide more options for in person learning.  Think about it – in your own life, you’ve had to adapt. It’s a truism, that the more ability you have to pivot, the more options become available.

As an independent counselor, I found ways to adapt. Other industries found ways to adapt. If we hadn’t, we would no longer be in a position to continue to provide our services. In other fields, with other service providers, if something isn’t working, it’s on the providers to make a change. It’s not acceptable to simply ‘lose a year’ because it was challenging… or to use those challenges to abdicate responsibility.

It’s not too late to change that narrative.

Which brings me back to Joe… because he’s trying to make it work. After his 11th grade teacher issued a blanket refusal to recommendation requests, Joe then turned to one of his current 12th grade teachers. This teacher suggested to Joe, “write the recommendation yourself…I’ll sign it”.

Joe’s teacher wants Joe to write his own recommendation. And this isn’t the first I’ve heard of this horribly unethical request. The first time, a few years ago, I thought it was an aberration, a one-time occurrence. Back then I remember discussing this request with some college admissions officers, and we agreed that such a request is unconscionable. But apparently it’s now becoming an insidious pattern, part of a get-ahead-at-all-costs mindset and an avoidance of responsibility. Glorify your own academic character and slap a professional name to the authorship. It’s flat out wrong for teachers to make such a request of their students, or for students to follow through with the effort.

The only proper student response is to run for the hills and find another teacher, which is what I advise my students and what I told Joe. Unfortunately there may be students out there who follow through with this exercise and attempt to write their own rec letter.

What kind of society are we going to build if the lessons we’re imparting to our children are antithetical to how to build a society? We can and should do better.

Maybe we can start with some of those “highly selective universities” and higher education more generally. Because we need it – now more than ever. So long as our K-12 system remains as it is, all students will require some level of post-high school education to be successful (this is delineated in multiple studies of the labor market).  Therefore bashing higher ed in a blanket fashion, which I see too often by today’s pundits, is not the solution. Reforming it is.

That notwithstanding, I’m going to bash one of Joe’s schools a little bit right now. This highly reputable university has one of the most selective admissions processes in the country, admitting only 14% of applicants (which, as a tool to measure educational quality, is a matter of debate for another day). At a time when many other selective colleges have gone test-optional due to COVID, including the entire Ivy League, this school has remained inflexible, insisting that students continue to submit scores. They also demand that teacher rec letters come from 11th or 12th grade teachers and, depending on which school you apply to (business, liberal arts, nursing, etc.) that they come from a specific subject (i.e., math or social studies for the business school).

This school and others like it should offer some short term flexibility when it comes to teacher rec letters. You are already demanding SAT/ACT scores at a time when most of your peer institutions have waived that requirement. Show a little flexibility in an area where many students – especially public school students who were largely remote during their entire 11th grade year – are at a significant disadvantage. Let them request a 10th grade English teacher if that’s the best way to exemplify their academic ability and grit. We live in unprecedented times that require us all to adapt. You should, too.

Last month I wrote about the importance of relationships, speaking mostly to current 11th graders about the need to establish rapport with their teachers. It was a more proactive message at the start of the school year so that they can avoid the situation that Joe and many of his classmates find themselves. If you’re a 10th or 11th grader, or the parent of one, please don’t let my rant today overshadow this important message especially if you’re seeking admission to a highly selective university.

Take heart, despite a news cycle and popular narrative that speaks to at most 150 different universities, there are 3,000+ institutions of higher learning in the US. Finding one that meets your child’s unique needs and budget is completely within your reach.

If you’re looking for a way to be more proactive when it comes to the college admissions process, email us at info@collegeplanningadvice.com or call our office, 954-659-1234. Perhaps we can help.

And, if you have a similar story to Joe’s I’d like to hear about it for some research I’m compiling. Please send an email to peter@collegeplanningadvice.com briefly explaining your experience. Thank you!

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