Pity the Recommendation Writer, Bard of the 'Great Bland Majority'

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The best students are easy to remember. So are the weakest. But what about the 80 percent or so in the middle?

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Brian Snyder/Reuters

It's October. Tens of thousands of high-school teachers and college professors across the country are busy churning out letters of recommendation for students applying to college or graduate school. Students dread asking for the recommendations; teachers dread getting the requests.

Writing letters is a loathsome task. It's not just that it takes lots of time, with each typically taking more than an hour to write. The real problem is this: About the vast majority of students, there's simply not much to say. So all that time and effort seem like a monumental waste.

Writing letters for one's strongest students is a cinch -- and a pleasure. It's easy to compose a great letter for a kid who is smart, hardworking, and insightful. A former colleague told me: "I actually enjoy writing the letters for the students with whom I have really connected. By thinking through their achievements and putting it into words, I feel I come to know the student better, and find even greater value in our relationship."

Even writing for the weak students is relatively easy. Usually, if they come to you for a letter it's because they have nowhere else to turn and because they know there's something you like and value about them.

I remember the high-school junior in my American history class who thought Alaska was a separate country. When, in the fashion of the very best teachers, I slapped my forehead and openly expressed incredulity at her ignorance, she was unabashed, and said gleefully, "But, Mr. Tierney, nobody really needs to know that!" She was one of the most appealing kids I ever taught, but she was several crayons short of a full box. (She would laugh with delight at that characterization.)

I found that doing a letter for her wasn't hard at all. After writing about her work in my course, I went on to say, in part:

Susie [no, not her real name] is remarkably open about the way she faces life: she has a cheerful insouciance about her own unawareness of the world around her. In light of her unguarded cluelessness, why would I agree to write a letter for her? The answer is that she is an extraordinary person -- nice, cheerful, and, best of all, authentic. Moreover, she is the kind of student who sees that there are more keys to success in life than being able to explain the causes of the War of 1812. She has great social skills and an infectiously joyful approach to life.

She's thriving now, in her third year of college.

Colleagues at both levels, college and high school, overwhelmingly agree that the real problem is writing for that vast array of students in the gray middle (70 or 80 percent of them), the ones who don't distinguish themselves in class in any way, either by brains or personality, and who pass through one's courses without leaving an impression other than their faint trail of blandness.

Writing letters for such students is incredibly difficult. And you end up feeling like you might as well connect the printer directly to the shredder and skip the whole middle part of sending the letter somewhere to be read. A former colleague of mine, a beloved science teacher, says:

I feel that the letters we write for the gray middle 80 percent are unlikely to affect whether the student is accepted or rejected from a college. Every time I write one of those "80 percent letters," I think to myself that the letter is the perfect reflection of the student herself -- i.e., almost completely indistinguishable from every other one. How could it not be?

College professors face two additional problems when it comes to writing recommendations: (1) they typically do not get to know their students as well as high-school teachers do; and (2) unlike high-school teachers, they often are approached for recommendations several years or more after having had the student in class. Addressing that problem, a professor friend told me:

Often I find I have no recollection of them at all, and it's really difficult to tell them that I don't remember them. ... So one time a student called me and asked for a letter, and wanted to know if I remembered him. I said of course I did, but I didn't, and I just kept digging a deeper hole. I figured I could Google my way out of this mess, but this kid had no Internet trail whatsoever and most importantly, no online images. It had gone way too far for me to ask him for a photo, so I just wrote some platitudinous piece of crap. ...

Anyway, he got into grad school and he was very grateful for my letter. The whole thing was embarrassing, and I'm not proud of it, but I just didn't want to hurt the guy's feelings. ... I'm sure he'll turn out to be a fine, productive citizen, whoever the hell he is.

For recommenders at all application levels, the real bane of their existence is the despised and dreaded matrix or grid on which the recommender is asked to rate the student on an assortment of qualities. This particular example is from the current Common Application, used by hundreds of thousands of college applicants each year.

Common App Matrix.png

Trying to fill out such grids for 20, 30, or 40 students a year is a formula for despair. A special place in hell should be reserved for those responsible for the proliferation of these things.

So, have some compassion for all the instructors out there who, in the weeks and months to come, will be devoting time and sweat to figuring out what to say about the members of the Great Bland Majority.

Maybe when this do-nothing Congress returns to Washington for its lame duck session, legislators can pass a resolution of appreciation for the besieged recommendation writers. Even pickles get a week in their honor.

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John Tierney

John T. Tierney is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and a former professor of American government at Boston College. He is the author of Organized Interests and American Democracy (with Kay L. Schlozman) and The U.S. Postal Service: Status and Prospects of a Government Enterprise.

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