The Art of the College Recommendation Letter

How teachers can move beyond statements like, “She is a consistently respectful student.”

See-ming Lee/flickr

In late September, seniors case my classroom in the early morning and charge in before I’ve turned on my laptop. They corner me at the copy machine and at the entrance to the faculty lounge. They each want the same thing: a letter of recommendation. And when I say yes, the student presses a crumpled brag sheet in my hands and runs in the opposite direction. Most teachers who have seniors as students are lucky if fewer than 20 ask, and generous if they agree to do 15. Writing a meaningful letter of recommendation takes time, a luxury that teachers don’t have. Still, it is difficult to say no to a worthy student, especially one who has made a public request with pleading puppy eyes.

I usually end up writing 12 to 15 recommendations per “season.” Some teachers are more prolific recommendation letter mills, churning out dozens every fall. Yet, judging from the specimens I have seen sliding from the office printer, their often-simple formula falls short.

A lot of teachers introduce themselves, announce the subject’s suitability for college, summarize his or her academic performance, and then fill in personal details by following the brag sheet—an unfortunately named document that endeavors to outline a student’s achievements: sports played, volunteer work completed, awards won, and so forth. Teachers who draw from the brag sheet merely end up corroborating the information revealed elsewhere in an application.

“He was defensive player of the year for the football team.”

“She ran student government and earned a 4.0.”

“His exam scores were the best in his class for the second half of the year.”

Even when these teachers editorialize further, they may traffic in the sorts of dull generalities that student writers are taught to avoid.

“She is a consistently respectful student.”

“He always puts forth great effort, no matter the task.”

The routine reduces students to bland shades of their real vibrant selves. The messages may also be misleading. A "respectful, quiet" student might sit in the back of class and never contribute to discussions. A "gregarious, social" student may be a pain in the ass unless his talkativeness is harnessed for an academic purpose. A "late bloomer" probably tanked his freshman year.

Admissions officers see hundreds of letters and encounter the same clichéd phrases and trite euphemisms again and again. We teachers mean well, and when it comes to applicants with stellar grades and scores, our letters may do no harm. But when we write formulaic recommendation letters, we’re not thoughtfully considering the purpose of a recommendation letter, and as a result, we’re probably not making great cases for promising students with less sparkling academic records.

That’s why I’m trying to embrace a different way of writing recommendations. My job is not to draw big neon circles around a student’s achievements so that an admissions officer will pay more attention to them. Instead of bragging on behalf of the student, I want to render human the person admissions officers may view as a collection of letters and numbers, to say what those grades and scores cannot.

A recommendation letter can discuss the academic and, when relevant, personal challenges a student has faced. It can clarify a student’s learning style and distill what he or she brings to a conversation about an academic topic. After all, colleges are trying to build classes of students, not simply usher in as many high-scoring kids as fate will permit. A recommendation, when it is done right, highlights, instead of purely the triumphs, the intangibles in a student's application. It helps admissions officers accomplish the goal of building a class that will thrive at the school and take advantage of the opportunities it can provide.

I avoid gratuitous praise. I can recommend a student “without reservations” and nonetheless call honest attention to challenges they have faced. It is not an error of inclusion to describe a student’s miserable first impression. Sharing a selective, respectful history of a student’s turbulent home life does not reflect poorly upon the applicant or the writer. Once an admissions officer at a very selective East coast liberal arts school and currently a college counselor at a private Quaker school, Ryan Keaton believes in keeping it real. “When I was in admissions . . . reading about how the student walked on water made me wonder if I was getting an accurate representation,” she says. “When I write now, I make sure I'm representing strengths and struggles honestly. If the rec letter doesn't add depth, then it's pointless. I learned that as an admission counselor reading umpteen letters a day.”

When I wrote a letter for my student Marina in October, I chronicled the process by which she wrote her personal statement, an essay detailing her complicated, tense relationship with her twin brother who, minutes-older and more socially adept, has often treated her with condescension. In her essay, she’d described trying to find or make him a birthday gift that he would value—in the end, a clever piece of video art. Her first essay draft had been four pages long and still unfinished, convoluted and riddled with wild tangents. But there was so much insight and heart buried in it. We had to move chunks of text around – not fun for a writer of any age. With every brutal edit, though, she’d nod enthusiastically and scribble changes frantically into the margins. Working with her showed me her character and the way she tackles a tough task. She thinks in lively sprints but has had to practice being methodical, backtracking to efficiently organize her ideas. I had to include that in her letter, even if doing so required me to acknowledge a problem area I’d identified.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that writers of recommendation letters should not endorse their subjects vigorously.

“When I write a recommendation letter, I see myself as an advocate for [a student’s] entire life,” says Joaquim Hamilton, Director of College Connection at Philadelphia Futures, which helps low-income, first-generation college students with the admissions process. Hamilton was previously an admissions officer at Swarthmore. “It is not enough for me to simply talk about their academics and club involvement. The students have just started to come into their own academically and personally. Their accomplishments just scratch the surface of who they are and what they will accomplish in the future. We can't write as if [it] is the end of a story, but more of a story yet to be written.”

Hamilton and I both work with students who are pioneers of sorts. They are the first in their families to attend college, and in many cases, the first to graduate from high school. Most of my college-bound students have neither a 2100 on the SAT nor a 4.0. GPA. Many of them have failed classes. Many of them have missed school to take care of younger siblings or attend family court. Some have faced dramatically difficult family disturbances and extreme poverty. A few have committed minor crimes. Many of my students have tackled AP classes without homework help outside of school. Many learned how to speak English in elementary school. Their strengths cannot be summed up by a transcript. It’s a recommender’s responsibility to make a school’s admissions officers wonder how a student’s story will continue to evolve.

“I have to make sure that colleges can look past them as ‘risky’ and really understand their untapped potential,” says Hamilton. “‘Could you imagine what this student would be able to accomplish if they had the professors, facilities, and environment that would properly support their talent?’”

Juan was a student who needed a letter to put his work in proper context. He’d started off high school on a dismal trajectory, a fantastic baseball player who failed half his classes. By the time he’d turned things around, his G.P.A. bore scars. In my class, as a 12th grader, he stood out for his analytical essays and personal narratives. He wrote, for instance, a richly descriptive five-page essay about a hunting trip he took with the male members of his extended family in which not a single shot was fired. Instead of the trip’s macho pretense, he focused on the relationships among family members. In order to provide context for Juan—a great athlete, a scrappy kid, a willing class clown, and yet an observant, sensitive writer—I had to write about that essay. I also had to ask others about him—teachers and coaches who’d known him longer. I had to make connections between the kid he was in the tumultuous first half of high school and the young man he’d become by its conclusion.

I had to play both detective and journalist. Consciously adopting that role isn’t a bad idea. After all, I am uncovering and illuminating what has not been made clear. I am not, like a good news reporter, free from bias. I think my students deserve careful consideration. But I have a responsibility to emphasize that without resorting to hyperbole. Students get themselves into college, but when teachers tell their stories well, we can give admissions officers a more enlightened perspective.