Nov 16, 2011

What to Consider When Arranging to have Recommendations sent Electronically

In a recent School Officials Update, the Common Application proudly pointed to the amazing uptick in the number of school reports and teacher evaluations submitted through their electronic system.

Counselor reports increased by 67 percent and teacher recommendations went up by 72 percent over last year—including 606,493 individual teacher submissions as of November 1st.

Since introducing electronic recommendations to the package of services it makes available to applicants, the Common Application has orchestrated a sea change in the way student evaluations are submitted to colleges and universities.

Although anecdotal evidence suggests that younger, more technologically savvy teachers and guidance counselors are more likely to submit electronically, there’s no denying that the service is growing in popularity.

But there are a few drawbacks unique to the Common Application system that may suggest caution when arranging to have recommendations sent electronically.

Unlike its much smaller competitor, the Universal College Application (UCA), the Common Application holds all electronically-submitted recommendations until after the student has submitted a completed application.

There’s no particular reason for this, other than some concern that a final application may never be submitted and unnecessary effort may result. This delay does, however, slow the process of file completion for applicants and is the source of complaints from major players among the Common Application membership.

The UCA never holds recommendations figuring that a college or university will devise methods of creating a file or holding the material for inclusion in a file later. The theory is that the cost of sending the information electronically is virtually nothing, and even if a student changes his or her mind, the value of having information sooner more than balances any issues resulting from incomplete applications. Besides, if a recommendation is sent, a college has an indication of “interest” which may then be followed-up by the admissions office.

The bigger problem, however, comes in the inability of a student or an evaluator to “tailor” recommendations. For whatever philosophical or technical reasons, the Common Application does not have a system in place allowing applicants to have any control over electronic recommendation submission.

For example, those evaluators submitting electronically through the Common Application should be cautioned not to mention a school name or underscore a particular student’s match with a specific school in his or her recommendation because that document will be available to ALL Common Application schools to which the student is applying.

In instructions to school officials, the Common Application warns against “clicker’s remorse” in the following statement:

"When you use the Common App Online School Forms System to submit a Secondary School Report or Teacher Evaluation on behalf of a student, that form and the accompanying letter are sent to all colleges to which the student submits a Common App Online. Since you cannot retrieve a form once you click submit (it's like dropping it in a mailbox), make sure you understand that anything you put in your letter--including the name of a single institution--will be seen by each and every college to which that student applies." *

The UCA and the Common Application make it possible for students to limit the schools for which a particular evaluator will write. This way, unnecessary or inappropriate recommendation letters are not automatically sent to schools either not requiring or not wanting particular evaluations.

For example, some schools require two recommendations—one from a math/science teacher and one from a humanities teacher. Others don’t particularly care and only specify that the recommendation(s) should come from academic subject areas. And some colleges really don’t need or want two recommendations—one will do just fine.

If a student needs an English teacher’s evaluation for one application, but doesn’t necessarily want that recommendation to go to all schools, s/he may limit where the English teacher’s recommendation will be sent through the UCA. In other words, the student has control over which teachers write for which schools.

In addition, the UCA makes it possible for evaluators to tailor their recommendations—if they so choose. If a student is a particularly good fit for a college or a specific program, an evaluator may feel free to point out the match and then revise the document for other schools. This flexibility has the potential of producing stronger, more valuable recommendations—a request that colleges repeatedly make in counselor sessions. Generic recommendations are simply not as useful.

The bottom line is that while the use of electronic school reports and teacher evaluations has the potential of streamlining the system, the individual application products differ enormously. Students might consider these differences as they select which application form to use when applying to individual colleges.

If students are committed to using the Common Application, they should discuss its limitations with their evaluators. Teachers and guidance counselors wanting to go that “extra mile” for a student may find it advantageous to go the snail mail route and complete the paper form instead of submitting electronically.

But if you go forward with the electronic system, be sure to enter correct email addresses for all of your recommenders. Otherwise, they may never get the invitation.

*Note that this may not be true if recommendations are submitted through the Naviance system.

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