College Application Month is underway away (including the Iowa College Application Campaign), and students are working to complete packages that will best showcase to colleges who they are as a person and a student. An important, though sometimes overlooked part of the application, is the recommendation letter. A good letter can provide a broader picture of what makes a student unique and well-suited for a school, while a bad one can come off as obligatory and offer no personal connection to the subject. Here are some tips to consider when pursuing application letters:
Who Needs Recommendation Letters?
Most schools will state if a letter of recommendation is required or optional, though some may provide the opportunity to provide both. Usually, required letters will be asked from a school counselor or teachers with whom the student has worked. Even if a school only requires an optional letter, students should take advantage of the opportunity to present someone who can reinforce their strengths to an admissions officer.
Recommendations can be essential in the following situations:
- A student needs someone else to help explain an obstacle or hardship. Learning disabilities, deaths in the family, unusual personal or family challenges can all fall into this category and a school counselor is often the person who can help explain.
- The applicant needs clarification from a school official to explain what is or isn’t on the transcript. If a student was unable to complete a certain course because it wasn’t offered on campus or limited by school policy, the school counselor can help explain.
- A student knows their application will undergo review. Letters of recommendation from teachers and optional essays will help in the holistic review process.
Who Should Write Recommendation Letters?
Finding the right person to write a student’s recommendation letter is a strategic decision. The right person will know a student well, be able add something to the application that isn’t well represented in the student resume and essays and can speak to your child’s academic strengths?
Students should include at least one academic teacher who has taught them in class for at least one full semester. Even if the student didn’t earn an A, a the teacher who can discuss a student’s academic abilities will go a long way to supplementing a list of activities from a student’s resume. Teachers should be encouraged to illustrate with specific examples, if possible, showing how a particular project, paper or situation showed student strengths through handling the work.
Who Should NOT Write a Letter of Recommendation?
The desire to get a big or recognizable name to write a letter of recommendation will not only serve as a poor replacement for quality letters people who know the student well, they can actually undercut the impact of a letter if the writer only offers a broad recommendation that doesn’t show closer knowledge. Just because a family member might be connected to an influential community member or businessperson doesn’t mean that a letter can replace one written by a person who knows the student as a person.
For many, summer vacation is the reward for a year of hard work and dedication in the classroom. But for those moving from high school to college, the months between graduation and arriving on campus can be fraught with challenges and distractions that can lead to students not completing their college goals.
“Summer melt” is the name given to those students who, for whatever reason, apply to a college, accept admission, but never arrive after high school graduation. There are many factors that can drive a student toward summer melt. Being aware of a few of those, and taking the steps to stay focused on the college path, can help make sure that the only thing that melts this summer is your ice cream!
Keep in touch with Counselors and Reach out to College Advisers
School counselors are there to help when challenges arise. Before graduation, students should ask high school counselors what resources are available to them in the summer. Need a helpful boost or reminder of why it’s important to get to college? Give your counselor a call!
Colleges are also looking to help students stay on track during the summer transition, many schools can reach out to students by text and email to make sure that the important dates during the summer transition aren’t missed.
Find a Mentor
It’s always easier to tackle a new challenge if you’ve spoken to someone who’s been through it. Community groups, schools and other non-profits offer mentors who can talk to students about the transition to college. But it can be as easy as talking to anyone you know who’s either in or graduated from college. Don’t be afraid to bring up your concerns about the transition when talking to a mentor. These relationships can last beyond the transition to freshman year and can offer a resource for support both in school and down the road. To hear some advice from first-generation students about making the move to college, check out our video “What I Wish Someone Had Told Me.”
Visit the College Website
Your school’s website is a great resource to answer questions you might have before starting school. Everything from student life, financial issues, academics, organizations and more can be found on a school’s website. Take some time to review the website, even before your student orientation. You’ll have a level of expertise that will make the transition to college that much easier.
Look into Placement Testing Before Orientation
Most schools have some sort of placement testing for incoming first-year students. These tests help gauge where students are in math, reading, and writing skills and makes sure students are taking the courses appropriate for their level of understanding in each subject. Some colleges will offer these tests at orientation, others require students to do them online or on-campus before fall semester starts. Students should make sure to contact the college to know when they need to take the tests.
Check College Health Insurance Plans
Many colleges have health insurance plans for students. Students should check their college’s requirements early to see whether it is affordable. Sometimes, colleges will automatically enroll students in the college’s health care plan. If a student already has qualifying insurance, they can usually apply for a waiver. To learn more about transitioning healthcare for students after high school, read the healthcare guide.
Take the time to emotionally prepare
No matter how much you prepare, college is a big change for many people. Whether you’re travelling far away or staying close to home, college is a major step into adulthood, complete with personal responsibilities that may not have been part of your high school routine. The stress of that change can have negative effects, with many freshmen citing it as a reason for dropping out during their freshman year.
If you’re leaving home, take the time to get you (and your family) used to the idea of you not being there every day. And if you’re staying closer to home, start identifying the people you can lean on in times of stress or the ways that you can deal with the pressures of school in a positive way.
Believe in Yourself
The best support students can find to stay on path to college is themselves. Remember: You’ve done the hard part and gained acceptance to college. Your dream of an education, as well as the career and life that comes with it is in your reach. But you can’t get your degree if you don’t show up.
For more tips and advice for planning for, getting to and succeeding in college, check out Iowa College Aid’s Your Course to College.
This week, we celebrate the work of school counselors throughout Iowa and the country during National School Counseling Week. This year’s theme, “School Counseling: Helping Students Realize Their Potential,” ties closely with the work done by Iowa College Aid through such initiatives as GEAR UP Iowa.
GEAR UP Iowa Program Coordinator Sprouse knows first-hand the impact that comes with interaction and motivation with students early in their educational career. It’s something that she learned early on as a student and a responsibility that she carries forward in her work building a college-going culture with GEAR UP Iowa students.
I went to a small elementary school where many of the teachers and other staff members had been there long enough to teach my parents as well as my siblings and me. While I appreciated that connection, it was exciting when a new guidance counselor started during my 4th grade year. She was young and energetic, and it may have been her first position as a school counselor. Her name was Mary and she was from outside of our close-knit community. I was immediately fascinated by her. Similar to our previous school counselor, Mary came into our classroom at least once a week for guidance lessons. She liked to have us do interactive and role-play activities, something I would normally dread as an introverted student. However, Mary had a way of making everyone feel comfortable and I usually looked forward to her lessons.
My parents went through a divorce when I was in second grade and I only knew two other kids in my class with divorced parents. I was a relatively quiet student in elementary school and that, combined with my split family, made me feel a little disconnected from everyone else. I don’t know if Mary knew that at the time but she didn’t treat me different either way. She was always happy to see every student and she truly cared about each and every one of us. Thanks to Mary, I finally started feeling a little more confident and I eventually started getting involved in after school activities.
I lost touch with Mary when I started middle school in a different building and she eventually left the district. As luck would have it, our paths crossed again about 20 years later when we worked together at the same college. She knew exactly who I was and she even remembered the names of my three siblings! We both left our positions from the college within a year from each other and I didn’t keep in touch. Ironically, we ran into each other again in our current positions and I am fortunate to collaborate with her every few months.
Mary hasn’t changed much from what I remember in elementary school. She is still one of the most optimistic people I know. Mary’s caring and welcoming personality helped me through a difficult time and I give her a lot of credit for being one of my first role models. I know there are many school counselors just like Mary and I am fortunate to still have her in my life.
GEAR UP Iowa couldn’t succeed in helping schools build a college-going culture without the vital role played by GEAR UP Iowa Coordinators at each of the high schools in the 12 partner districts throughout Iowa. As part of #NationalGEARUPWeek, we highlight the work being done to connect students and families with the opportunities possible with continuing education after high school.
Sarah Bernhard brings a long career of educational experience to her role as GEAR UP Iowa Coordinator at Jefferson High School in Cedar Rapids, IA. Key to her passion for the program, she says, is how important it is to help students and families how higher education can help students position themselves for future success in both their career and life. She shares her thoughts on working with GEAR UP Iowa:
Having spent 20 years as a classroom teacher in Alternative Education, I know first hand the obstacles many students face when it comes to college readiness and preparation. So when the occasion came about to become a GEAR UP Iowa Coordinator, I knew this would be the perfect role for me to continue to support students but more importantly, to help break down those barriers and obstacles by creating numerous academic supports and opportunities. GEAR UP Iowa truly represents the ideal that ALL students deserve the chance to continue their education after graduation. GEAR UP Iowa creates a support system, develops a path of career exploration, bridges the gap between teacher, student, and family communication, but most importantly it creates a culture of success beyond the classroom. I hope that over the next four years I am able to open the doors of opportunities for my 400 students and motivate them to see their dreams and aspirations come into fruition.
With the increase in financial literacy education’s presence in classrooms around Iowa, it’s more important than ever the educators find ways to work with students on a wide variety of financial literacy topics. Over the last 16 years, Iowa Jump$tart has helped teach and support Iowans, helping them embrace financial literacy.
The group’s annual conference, taking place July 22 in Ankeny, IA, targets educators looking for the latest information and materials available to help them teach financial literacy, while providing a forum for teacher collaboration and discussion. Speakers at this year’s conference will highlight and motivate audiences on such subjects as financial education, personal finance and financial planning all with an eye toward making Iowa students more fluent in the financial literacy.
Keynote speaker Mitch Matthews will help audience members deal with the worry and stress that blocks creativity and focus, while breakout sessions will delve into a variety of financial literacy subjects including responsible educational borrowing, tips for first-generation families paying for college and ways to make kids more money savvy at an early age. For the first time, the Jump$tart conference will also offer attendees a chance to meet with a financial planner in a one-on-one session to talk about how to put plans into personal action.
As a further benefit to teachers, those who attended the Iowa Financial Literacy Summit in Des Moines this past May can receive teacher credit by registering and attending the Iowa Jump$tart Conference. Teachers can also enter to win a sponsorship to the national Jump$tart conference in November while at the Iowa conference.
A variety of exhibitors will also be on-hand during the conference, including the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, Iowa State Extension and Outreach, TS Institute, Next Gen Personal Finance, Wells Fargo and many more.
Find out more and register for the 2016 Iowa Jump$tart Conference by visiting IowaJump$tart.org.
Iowa College Aid and programs such as GEAR UP Iowa work to help students prepare for an educational future after high school through college or other forms of study. For teachers such as Tara Brokovich, the impact of education can, and should, last for generations.
Serving as GEAR UP Iowa Coach and Special Education Teacher at Wilson Middle School in Cedar Rapids, Brokovich has organized meetings to help students prepare for the transition to high school, as well as overseen college campus visits to encourage students to have a college-going midset. The work serves her belief that teachers should help students engage beyond the classroom, teaching them more than just what they need to succeed in school and in life, but in the lives of all those they touch.
Brokovich’s words of wisdom serve as an apt conclusion to Teacher Appreciation Week, encompassing the holistic approach to teaching students to be part of the world, not just students:
“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” – Lao Tzu
The terms “leader” and “people” can easily be replaced with “teacher” and “students.” This quote fuels my passion to give students an education in and outside of the classroom that will pass down through generations. For example, I take my students on field trips which demonstrate the impact of what they are currently learning and how that transfers to the professional world. This year, I took my writing classes to our local TV station to see the importance of writing in media. Through GEAR UP Iowa, I arranged for recipients to experience college life through visits. As the sponsor of Service Club, my students are able to practice volunteerism and realize the significance in the community and for themselves. Finally, as a coach, I am able to teach my student athletes life lessons they will carry forever.
GEAR UP Iowa, Iowa College Aid’s program that works with schools in 12 Iowa districts to help encourage college attainment, follows a group of students from middle school all the way through the first year of college. As the current GEAR UP Iowa cohort finishes their second year of the program and prepares for the transition from middle school to high school, it’s important to remember the impact that the teachers and staff at GEAR UP Iowa schools make on students.
In honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, Ft. Dodge Middle School teacher John Newman reflects on the experience of working with GEAR UP Iowa students and the additional educational opportunities the program helped fund.
At Ft. Dodge, Newman used GEAR UP Iowa funds to develop a summer program focused on hands-on STEM activities for students, including constructing water rocket launchers and cardboard furniture. They also used 3-D computer modeling and experimented with electric wiring to make a bug. Students also had the opportunity to visit the Science Center of Iowa. At the end of each day, students were given time to reflect on what they had learned and how they will apply their knowledge in the future.
Newman’s reflections on his experience reflects the passion that we celebrate this week in Iowa’s teachers, a passion for learning and engaging students.
It has been absolutely amazing working with 8th grade students and helping them realize the power of an education thanks to the GEAR UP Iowa program. Talking to middle school students about the possibility of going to college and providing them with a college experience has really helped create a “college going” culture in our school.
Whether offering tutoring sessions to help provide that extra support to help students meet the demands of the classroom or engaging students in active learning practices via the summer camp I organized, GEAR UP Iowa has certainly changed the way I engage with students. I’ve integrated what I call “college talk” into my lessons by helping students dig deeper into their thinking and helping them make connection of their learning to world outside of school.
So many of our students are told that college isn’t an option for them or they have no idea how they can get there. Working with my students and the GEAR UP Iowa program was truly rewarding for me as an educator. Hearing students at the middle school level talking to their peers about what college they want to go to just fills you up with pride and hope for the next generation.