The frenzy otherwise known as the college admissions process is fueled by pressure to write the perfect essay, wow the interviewer, score close to 1600 on the SAT, cram a resume with activities and acts of kindness--and, increasingly, secure the pivotal recommendation.
That explains why dozens of 11th-graders at Bethesda, Md.'s Whitman High School lined up last semester--well before the crack of dawn and months before they needed them--to inscribe their names on a list so their favorite English teacher would write a recommendation.
"It was a disaster," said English department head Suzanne Coker, who found the halls filled at 6:45 a.m. Coker had told juniors that teachers were limiting the number of recommendations they would write and would start a first-come, first-served list May 1.
"I didn't expect them to get there at 5 a.m. It got to be like a rock concert, with kids saying, 'How early can I get there?' " she said. "We have to come up with a better system, because this is important."
As college admissions become ever more competitive, recommendations can make a difference in an applicant's prospects. Although many wind up having no impact, one that thoughtfully explains why a student's grades dipped, or that reveals a thirst for learning not obvious in the transcript, could be the thing that turns the decision, said Jack Blackburn, admissions director at the University of Virginia.
"Of course they are important," said Ted O'Neill, admissions director at the University of Chicago. "In the whole process, you are looking for something you can understand in human terms. We say we want it in the essays, but sometimes the students don't know how to write about themselves or are too modest or too scared."
With more students applying to more colleges, teachers are being crushed under the weight of requests, making it harder for them to write the personal letters that colleges seek. Teachers usually know students better than counselors do, and budget cuts in many states have reduced the ranks of counselors to the point where, in some districts, there is one for every 800 or more students.
To be sure, some schools, such as Virginia Commonwealth University and each institution in the University of California system, don't seek recommendations, because "most are pro forma," said VCU Undergraduate Admissions Director Delores Taylor. But even those schools will sometimes request a recommendation in a borderline decision.
At colleges that do require recommendations--often asking for two or three--admissions offices get buried. The University of Virginia received 34,000 undergraduate recommendations last year.
Staffers read every one more than once, although they often ignore unsolicited recommendations that students add for effect. And veteran readers have mastered the art of reading between the lines--a requirement, since virtually no recommendation will call someone a stinker outright.
Teachers and counselors say they put much time and devotion into the task. It can take two to three hours to write the first draft. Ellen Fay, a counselor at Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax, Va., wrote 140 letters last year, working on weekends and nights--and even on her birthday.
But Fay said she and her colleagues don't feel it is an imposition. "It is such an incredible thing to play such a role in someone's life and know that you can have such an impact," she said.
Teachers who taught the student in 11th grade are most commonly asked to write recommendations, since applications must be sent before many students get to know their senior teachers. English teachers seem to be the most burdened, not only because some schools require recommendations from them, but also because students feel they open up in these classes.
"You get to know the soul of the kids," Whitman English teacher Beth Rockwell said.