Friday, October 22, 2010

Ask the Administrator: Tracking Down Letters of Recommendation

A longtime reader writes:

I recently graduated from a third tier SUNY school with a degree in English. I want to be a high school English teacher, which mean I want to go to grad school for a masters in adolescent education/teaching. I transferred into said SUNY from a cc my junior year. Graduated from SUNY with a 2.84 (3.0's and above for 3 out of my 4 semesters; got 3 C's one semester...brought down my gpa some, but I've always been a good student in college). I took some time these past few months, and it was then I decided to apply to grad school. Found some schools in my area that accommodated to a gpa under 3.0, and I plan on taking the GRE to off-set that. (most of these schools btw require ACADEMIC recs, not professional, etc.)

My problem arises from the recommendation portion of my applications....I can't get one! So while it never hurts to ask, I've contacted a few professors (through e-mail) from classes that I've gotten B's and above in. I've written very kind and thought-out e-mails explaining my future academic plans, asking if they would write me a recommendation, but understanding and thanking them anyway if they couldn't. I've had professors turn me down (nicely), and some professors, after a few follow-up e-mails, never getting back to me at all.

I don't want to settle on a future w/o a graduate education because of the unwillingness of a few professors. I also don't really have the hundreds of dollars per credit to take 2 or 3 more english courses at a local college, get an awesome grade, and then HOPE that I'll get a recommendation out of it.

And yes, I have found 1 program near me that doesn't require any recs, but I'm not going to put all my eggs in one basket.

I’ve never been a fan of letters of recommendation. Especially at this level, they seem to reward extroversion more than quality, and those who by luck of the draw happened to get full-time, as opposed to adjunct, professors.

That said, though -- and please don’t take this the wrong way -- it sounds like your transcript could use some sort of boost. A GPA below 3 can make admission to many graduate programs an uphill battle.

I’m also curious about the professors who actually had email exchanges with you, but then declined to write letters. Since you actually had exchanges with them, this wasn’t a matter of not being able to track down people who had left. In my experience, professors decline to write letters when they either don’t believe that the student was especially worthy, or they really don’t know the student well enough to say. (It’s conceivable that they could also plead workload, though I wouldn’t expect that to come after exchanging multiple emails.)

So it’s possible that the GPA cutoff and the palpable lack of enthusiasm on the part of your former professors are effectively conspiring to tell you something.

Or not; you could just be a victim of circumstance. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the folks on graduate admissions committees wondered the same thing. If you’re up against other applicants with GPA’s well above 3 and solid letters, I don’t like your chances.

One way around that is precisely what you described: take some other classes, knock them out of the park, and show that you’re stronger than your record thus far would suggest.

Another would be to start with private high schools. They can set their own hiring requirements, and they usually don’t require teaching certifications. If you find the right setting, you may be able to find out fairly quickly whether teaching high school is really for you. Even there, though, you may be up against plenty of people with Master’s degrees, and the pay is typically pretty low.

Since my familiarity with teacher education programs is on the beginning end, I’ll have to ask my wise and worldly readers who know that world better than I do what they would suggest. Wise and worldly readers who know this stuff -- is there a better option?

Good luck!

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.