College Admissions Article: Why Developing Good Relationships with Classroom Teachers is Important: Recommendation Letters: The X Factor of College Admissions


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!









Answers to Frequently Asked Questions about SAT Subject Tests

SAT Subject Tests

Mr. Buffer (NJ Licensed Teacher), the Founder, Owner, and Educational Director of the Cambridge Learning Center of New Jersey,  was recently asked by a group of parents at a lecture what the most important things to know about the SAT Subject Tests were.     So, he decided to synthesize his remarks, based on and combined with answers to the most frequently asked questions he receives, into 8 major points below:


  1.  SAT Subject Tests are also called the “SAT 2”  Tests.  They are 1 hour each, typically composed of about 60 questions each.

  2.  SAT Subject Tests (SAT 2 Tests)  cannot be taken on the same test date as the regular SAT (known  as the SAT 1).

  3.  A student can take up to 3 subject tests on 1 test date.

  4.  The SAT Subject Tests are given in most major areas including Biology (Environmental and Molecular), Chemistry, Math I , Math II (PreCalculus and Trigonometry),  Spanish, French, Chinese,  Italian, German, Latin, U.S. History,  World History, Physics, and many of the foreign language tests listed also offer a Listening Section.

  5.  The SAT Subject Tests are not officially required for entrance to the vast majority of colleges, but some universities do require certain SAT Subject Tests to be considered for particular programs.  For example, many 7-year Medical programs do require the SAT Chemistry or SAT Biology (Molecular) test, and possibly a Math subject test.

  6.  Even though many schools do not require students to take these tests to be considered for Admission, great scores on these can be a very effective tool to help students make themselves more distinct amongst other applicants.   Mr. Buffer often tells parents the truth he has seen play out repeatedly that the Subject Tests can be the “Tie-breakers” between two students with equal GPAs, SAT Scores, and other indicators of high achievement. 

  7.  SAT Subject Tests are given all-year-round, when the regular SAT is offered, except for March.

  8.  School learning is not often enough to fully prepare students for a Subject Test because the content in school is not fully comprehensive.    Mr. Buffer often explains that the SAT Subject Test is a nationally-given test, which means the composition of the test is the same across the 50 states, but each state has its own curriculum.  So, inevitably, there will be necessary learning material omitted from a student’s education, or possibly not covered as in depth as is optimal for a stellar performance on the Subject Test.   This is why Cambridge Learning Center has become so successful at preparing students for these tests, because we teach the material that students don’t yet know, often unbeknownst to them.

A few things to know about the New SAT coming in 2015

Many parents and students have been asking me about the new SAT that the College Board will roll out in 2015.   Here are a few important things to know about the test.   I will be posting a lot more about this topic as the release date comes closer.


1)  Content Consistency

The test will still test Reading, Writing, and Math skills as it always has.   These skills still form the core and fundamental skills that prepare one for college and for a lot of effective work in the world.    Many parents have asked me for the best way to prepare their younger students for the new SAT, and my reply is always the same:   There is no getting around and no question that the best way to prepare, both short-term and long-term, for the SAT and for college is to have your children read often, enhance their vocabulary,  enrich their math skills, learn and practice core grammar and writing rules beyond what they learn in school (where time is limited and depth is often not permitted), and to adopt rigorous study and work habits.  While the SAT will change its face and appearance, the content of what is being tested will remain the same.

Hard work

2)  2400 to 1600 / Elimination of the SAT Writing Section

Yes, the SAT will return to its original 1600 scoring basis that most of us over 30 remember.   The section that is being removed is the SAT Writing section, which many colleges view as irrelevant.    One thing that is significant to note about this section is that girls have done tremendously better than boys have on it, thus taking away one section in the competitive college admissions process that girls clearly outshone boys on.  Whatever the reason for this, it is important to take note of because there has been an achievement gap in overall SAT scores.

It is also important to note that the skills and knowledge that were being tested in the SAT Writing section- grammar, sentence structure, etc.-  will not go away.   Rather, they will be integrated into the test in a different format that is combined with the reading section.   What this shows is that the original reason for creating the section- to integrate writing and grammar skills (which are also still a big part of the ACT) is still of interest.

Lastly, the SAT Essay assessment will not exist in its current format, in which students write an essay 1and two graders’ assessments are combined for a total score.  Like the ACT (topic for a different post), the SAT will now make the SAT Essay optional.


3) Reading Passages and vocabulary to be more relevant

One of the most difficult things for many students about the current SAT is the arduous Critical Reading passages, which often use excerpts from seemingly archaic sources:  19th- century novels, a comparative essay from a social science journal from 1982, etc.   One of the core arguments against these passages is that they are unrelated to what students are learning in school.   The College Board will now make the Critical Reading Passages very relevant to students and take excerpts from primary sources that they are very familiar with, such as the ones they are exposed to in Social Studies class.

The same thing will happen with vocabulary.  Words like lugubrious and vapid will be replaced by words that students have had more exposure to.   It has become commonplace in education talk and in our culture in general for people to use the term “SAT Words.”   It has always seemed partly off that students would have to newly learn and then study words that were supposed to be part of an assessment of what they had already learned in high school.


While the SAT format changes, it doesn’t really change a few things.   First, that there will still be a natural bell curve and spread of scores that will reflect student ability levels.    Second, the SAT is still and will still be relevant for college admissions.   Tests such as the SAT and ACT are one of the only common denominators for comparing students from different regions who have different levels of rigor in their high schools.   And lastly, there truly are no shortcuts and no substitutes for hard work, rigorous study, and commitment.  As I alluded to earlier, the SAT has always required students to be able to analyze complex material, to be strong in Math, and to know how to perform under some pressure.  None of this will really change.