It’s the season of college applications which means it’s also the season for college recommendation letters. I’ve been a high school English teacher for so long that you’d think I had the letter writing gig down to a science. You know, finding ways to turn a lazy, obnoxious, entitled kid into a “witty future leader, brimming with possibilities.” And while it’s true, I’ve found wonderful euphemisms for “asshole” “derelict” and “possible serial killer,” I haven’t found a way to bang them out quickly. Even with my folder full of previous recommendation letters, I don’t copy and paste. I don’t write generic. I still sit down, year after year, and write letters that address more than a student’s “infectious smile” or “unique perspective” or “creative thinking.”
It’s not just the difficult students that are hard to write for. The top scorers create a larger problem, with the majority of them looking like carbon copies of every high scoring, over achieving student. Finding what makes them really unique – beyond the Mandarin lessons and trips to save a small village in Africa – is sometimes a larger challenge than finding a better word for “special.”
And though I do paint pretty pictures of my students, I don’t lie. In fact, even though fiction tends to be my specialty, I’ve turned down requests for letters if I didn’t feel like I could compose a complimentary one – euphemisms and all. You’d think that would be an obvious policy, but you’d be surprised how many teachers write letters that read more like un-recommendations. Letters like that make me question why I put in so much work, when it would be so much easier to just write, “Good luck, kid!”
That’s not to say my letters are perfect. I definitely sometimes dip into the tried and true banalities that describe most hard working students. But I work hard to avoid them where possible. I’ve written some letters that read like poetry, and others that made me cringe a bit, knowing how much latitude I took in highlighting the strongest points of the student.
It’s not that I think I’m unique. Most of my colleagues also spend inordinate amounts of time crafting winning letters. It’s a thankless job, for the most part. I might get a note or a pen set from a student, but the letters themselves get filed on my computer, never to be seen by anyone but the anonymous admissions director and the college guidance counselor.
It’s why I started a policy of sending my recommendation letters to my students when they graduate from their respective universities. I tell them to keep in touch so that when they graduate, if they’re struggling to find a job, or if college didn’t pan out the way they had hoped, they’ll suddenly get a letter reminding them that at one point, four years prior, someone cared about them and someone knew what they did well.
I sometimes wish I could record those college letter writing marathons that sometimes keep me up late at night and send those recordings over to the parents who send emails asking for a “quick letter for Yale” because their kid needed an extra rec at the last minute. Only someone who has worked on these letters can really understand what goes into them and why the simple request, for someone who takes it seriously, is not so simple at all.
I’m almost done with the letters needed for the November 1st deadline and I still have more to write for the later deadlines. It’s an unsung part of my job that I’ve made peace with.
But still, as I sit down to write another one, I can’t help but think that maybe there should be a different kind of process. Maybe it’s time to rethink the rec.
Though I doubt anything will change before this letter is due.