College Admissions Article: Why Developing Good Relationships with Classroom Teachers is Important: Recommendation Letters: The X Factor of College Admissions:
By Justin M. Buffer, Founder, Owner, and Ed. Director of the Cambridge Learning Center of New Jersey
It is not uncommon to hear teachers mentioning in the staff room about how their students find it difficult to connect with them. This is understandable because adolescents are going through a life-changing and challenging period of their lives when they begin high school. At 14, a teenage child has to do battle with the transformation of hormones, absorbing new learning content education, and taking tough exams. And that’s just for starters and does not mention the SAT/ACT!
All the while, they often make a natural enemy with anyone in authority. Even students from cultural and religious backgrounds who are taught or urged to be deferential to authority still often set up an adversarial relationship with educators. Also, the rebellious years are here at this time, and the teacher is one of the leading candidates to be filed under the authoritarian figurehead deep within that adolescent mind. It makes the entire process of forming good relations with teachers a challenging one at best.
However, the need for good relationships is often vital for the competitive college application and admissions process. When students reach the point of this process, they will usually require a recommendation letter from at least two teachers. College admissions officers have stated to me in conversation that they place a high value on these letters or recommendation forms primarily because they are confidential. They know the students don’t have access to them (they are usually uploaded to Naviance or sent confidentially), and they like the fact they are nuanced and not “all or nothing” assessments of students. What I mean by this is the forms may ask, for example, a teacher to rank a student from 1-6 on “Work Ethic,” and also to give further details. So, a teacher can give a student a “5,” but also say that at times the student faltered with consistency in this area. Thus, the “gray” nature of these forms, which I have filled out as a public school educator in the past, gives them a sense of comfort.
The guts of this letter can ultimately help or hinder to pave the way for a student to move forward into an undergraduate, graduate, or accelerated education program. Even for students who will go straight into an apprenticeship and not a university, a letter of recommendation needs to be positive and shine a good light about those three crucial years of the students’ high school development.
Scholarship programs in the United States almost also always demand a good recommendation letter to support an application. A student needs to ask a burning question to themselves, in any year they are in high school: will a recommendation letter – if submitted today – be a favorable one? If not, the student needs to urgently act and form a good relationship with more teachers by showing emotive strength, good character, a strong work ethic, and an advanced learning-acquisition ability.
This does not mean, by the way, that students should buy their teachers gifts or provide false flattery! We teachers can see through this! But they should try and build a good rapport with their teachers and demonstrate humility and a palpable, strong work ethic.
Recommendation letters will highlight how well the teacher knows the full scope of a student. It will also note the duration. Three years is a reasonable period of time to get to know a pupil, particularly as it encompasses the profoundly transformative period that high school is. But even if a teacher only knows a student one year but knows them well, that is OK also! And a guiding principle should be that the more recent the teacher had a close relationship with a student, the better, but should not be a blanket rule that violates a common-sense decision.
A student needs to develop a good relationship with teachers because they will ultimately hold the key to their future. The recommendation letter will also include an evaluation of the student and any skills and accomplishments they will have compiled over the three years. Examples of these accomplishments and strengths will almost certainly be included in the letter of recommendation.
“Relationships, relationships, relationships,” one Fortune 500 CEO said, was the key to lasting success. If she is correct, then high school is the perfect place to start practicing and integrating the truth of this aphorism.
Mr. Justin M. Buffer is a professional educator, consultant, and college admissions planner. He is the owner, founder, and director of the Cambridge Learning Center of New Jersey, that does in-person and online tutoring for SAT/ACT, K-12 Subjects (All), MCAT, GRE, and more!
BY JUSTIN. M. BUFFER,
FOUNDER, OWNER, AND HEAD TEACHER/EDUCATIONAL DIRECTOR OF THE CAMBRIDGE LEARNING CENTER OF NEW JERSEY
One of the greatest challenges students face, both in school and on standardized tests, is transcending their anxiety. At our fantastic and award-winning learning center, the Cambridge Learning Center of New Jersey, we do our best to help students mitigate this anxiety. Also, in my parent meetings, while often reassuring parents that the anxiety their children experience is quite common, I tell them that it is important to have a strategic plan that all family members are involved in and that the genesis and nature of the student’s anxiety is properly understood.
Academic test anxiety is more than simply getting a little jittery before an exam. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) describes it as a full-fledged psychological condition, a type of performance anxiety characterized by “extreme nervousness about taking a test.” It is important in any discussion about such an important issue to first distinguish between normal anxiety that any student would have and when that anxiety reaches a clinical level.
When parents meet with me, I help them make this distinction.
Test anxiety can strike before, during or after any exam. There are cases where it shows up from the commencement of the school year, especially if a student knows one of the grand standardized exams is on the horizon. It can present itself in diverse symptoms, from as simple as sweaty palms, upset stomach, shallow breathing, nausea, and headaches, to more complicated symptoms such as emotional and cognitive symptoms which include feelings of helplessness and difficulty concentrating. In extreme cases, students exhibit these symptoms even after thorough preparation for the test and having a firm grasp on the material. Despite this, they will freeze or blank once the test is in front of them.
Before discussing how you can help your child cope with such anxiety, let me just offer one thing concerning special needs students: research suggests that students with disabilities experience greater test anxiety than their peers without these limitations. So, it is essential to consider other potential challenges, such as processing speed deficits, learning differences and skill deficits when diagnosing students with test anxiety.
Tips for Managing Test Anxiety
It is worth first noting that different strategies will work for different children. So, I feel that parents should be maximally flexible and have a robust bag of tricks to help their child or children. We operate on the same principle here at Cambridge.
Here are some tips to try:
· Ask your child questions for clarity. Identifying why your child is experiencing test anxiety can be helpful in figuring out the best way to manage it because this will provide valuable clues as to what will help calm him or her down. Have a calm discussion with them, helping to locate the root of their anxiety. Often times, students have a “worst-case scenario” that is not very realistic, such as “If I fail this test, I will never get into college.” You can challenge and reality test students’ misperceptions like this with: “Many students have gotten into college and didn’t do perfectly on every test in high school.”
· Use my effective test-taking strategies taught during our tutoring sessions. If your child is not a student at our center, familiarize yourself with well-known anxiety-mitigation strategies available on the public market. Strategies like familiarizing one’s child suffering from test anxiety with the actual content they’re being tested on can help calm them. Some of these techniques include reading questions thoroughly before answering them (especially for tricky technology-enhanced item types), skipping over questions that students don’t know for better time management, and reviewing answers as time allows, etc. All of these above are part of our repertoire and my curriculum at Cambridge.
· Focus on the positives. Children struggling with test anxiety dwell in patterns of negative thinking when it comes to tests. They often focus on all of the mistakes they could make, things that could go wrong, and how catastrophic a lousy score could be.
Parents should help shift their focus by assisting them to reflect on some successful past experiences. Request of them to tell you (or journal) about a test that they performed well on. How did they prepare for that test? How did they feel about it before and after? Getting them to stop and remember their abilities can go a long way toward breaking the negativity cycle—and calm nerves in the process. This can help bolster their confidence.
· Teach relaxation strategies. Visualization exercises are great for kids because they tend to have active imaginations. It is best practiced when your child is calm. Request for her to close her eyes and identify a place she feels happy, confident, and relaxed. Encourage her to share details about the sights, sounds, and scents in his calming place. As they share, cue them to take deep breaths. Then on test day, remind your child to close their eyes and visualize their calming place whenever they feel anxious.
In helping your child overcome the challenge of test anxiety, one may need to experiment a few before you find the techniques that work best for your ward. Be creative and patient, and you can have a meeting with me about it also. Actively helping your child to develop skills in self-regulation will provide benefits for decades to come.
About the author:
Justin M. Buffer is the founder, owner, and head teacher/educational director of the Cambridge Learning Center of New Jersey.
Lang, Jonas W.B., and Jessica Lang. “Priming Competence Diminishes the Link Between Cognitive Test Anxiety and Test Performance: Implications for the Interpretation of Test Scores.” Psychological Science 21, no. 6 (2010): 811-19.