Cycle 1

College Apps According to Teachers

Every year, high school seniors across the country fall into a state of panic over college applications.

Teachers, however, experience this anxiety year after year, graduating class after graduating class. They watch the stress, the all-nighters, the caffeine, the last-minute scrambling, the procrastination, and the mental breakdowns each year.

So, to better understand the perspective of the homework-givers and the graders, three instructors from Stanford Online High School were interviewed. Nick DeMello, a chemistry teacher, Micah Tillman, a philosophy teacher, and Kathleen Washburn, an English teacher were asked a series of questions. Here are their answers:

Firstly, it is quite widely known that getting into top colleges is extremely competitive and accordingly, the teachers interviewed expressed how their experience was less fierce than it is now. “The school is in business to support students. No one should be proud about turning away 97% of the students” said Dr. DeMello.

No one should be proud about turning away 97% of the students

Dr. Nick DeMello

“Back then, you didn’t need as competitive a portfolio. I only applied to one college. It didn’t even occur to me to apply to three or four colleges especially since I had to pay for each of those applications”, explained Dr. DeMello.

Dr. DeMello and Dr. Tillman both revealed that they only applied to one college. They didn’t even consider applying to multiple, especially because of the fee applicants have to pay in order to apply to a college. Dr. Washburn also shared how “We often joke, among OHS faculty, that we would never get into our schools that we went to, now.”

Dr. DeMello also had a particularly interesting prediction for how the college application process will change and what it will become. “It’s gotten ridiculously competitive. And I think going forward, it’s gotten to a point where it’s breaking”, he explained “I think what’s going to happen is the college board is going to turn into a more of a match-making service. I think that what they’re going to do is they’re going to offer multiple levels of assessment where students can go in and they can kind of express who they are and then that information can be captured and used systematically to compare the schools…”

The instructors were also asked what roles teachers play in the college application process. “So I think teachers play an important role, in trying to, not only help students feel strong in their foundations in math and science and humanities and writing … (but) to really help students develop their critical thinking and to help them ask hard questions and not feel like they have to just stick to something that’s conventional…” said Dr. Washburn.

Other roles included being an advocate for the students, signaling to students what really matters in getting an education, writing recommendation letters, and reminding them to talk to their college counselors.

There were some particularly wholesome responses to questions about recommendation letters. “Yeah, it’s a great honor and it’s also terrifying”, said Dr. Tillman, “Just like I worry about grading students because I don’t want to ruin their lives by giving them bad grades … I also worry about whether I am helping or hurting students in the particular things I am saying”.

Dr. DeMello expressed a similar sentiment as well: “Some of these students feel
everything is riding on this, and it’s incredibly stressful for them and I want to do right by them”.

About the process of writing a recommendation letter, the instructors expressed similar ways of writing a recommendation letter. “With the students that I have very strong positive opinions about, I find the writing of a letter easy because it’s easy to be authentic but then I worry about whether or not I am being specific enough about particular things and to what extent I am just expressing a general affirmation which might not be helpful in actually getting them in” explains Dr. Tillman.

You really don’t have to worry about your teacher writing a negative recommendation letter. When asked if they have ever had to write a letter for a bad student, all of them said no. “Because I guess all my students tend to just be awesome to start off with or something?” said Dr. Tillman. “So, yeah, I’m kind of lucky, I’ve never had a bad student. I don’t think they exist” explained Dr. DeMello.

When asked what he would do if a student with no good characteristics asked him for a letter, Dr. Tillman revealed that, “if I had someone who I didn’t think was a good student at all, like just had no redeeming qualities at all, I would decline to write the recommendation letter for them. I would thank them for thinking of me because it is an honor to be asked and I always feel honored.”

When the instructors didn’t know the student very well, they said they would talk to the students and direct them to better choices. None of the teachers would write down negative things behind your back.

The three teachers had quite a bit of advice for high school students as well. The first piece of advice that was given by all three teachers is that students shouldn’t value prestige as much as they do. Dr. Tillman himself chose his college based on criteria like the proximity to his family, whether it had a good computer science program, and whether it was Christian: “As a philosopher, I have been trained to think that prestige doesn’t matter. That what matters is virtue and intelligence and wisdom and that kind of stuff”, said Dr. Tillman. Dr. DeMello also expressed this point. He explained how he had a niece who decided not to go to UCLA but a school that is ranked lower and how he believes her decision is wiser than he and many other students would be in the same situation.

“Don’t come feeling like it’s this one school or nothing and you’ll be devastated if you don’t end up going to that one school. You can have a favorite, by all means, but colleges and universities are doing some wonderful work and there are many, many options out there so maybe just be willing to consider some things you haven’t thought of before and that might really pay off in the end with a wonderful experience” said Dr. Washburn. “I would like to see broader consideration of what kinds of places would be a good fit … There might be a school that has a specialty that is right up your alley or that is a good distance from home or closer to family, or in a region that you want to stay in.”

Dr. DeMello also wanted to tell students that “the most valuable thing I can think to share with students is there is no bad school … The simple truth is, whatever school you eventually choose, it’s the right school. Because when you get there, the experience that you are going to have, you’re in control.”

The second piece of advice was from Dr. Washburn. She suggested asking your teachers about a recommendation letter early. You could ask the specific teacher in the late spring or summer of junior year rather than wait for senior year. It is also easier for teachers this way.

And finally, Dr. Tillman said he would like students to relax. There isn’t just one perfect school that fits you, he said, there are multiple and you shouldn’t and don’t need to get so stressed out: “From a teacher’s point of view, a lot of the energy I get from my students is stress and that makes me feel so sad.”

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