The Art of the Recommendation Letter

hands typing on the keyboard
hands typing on the keyboard

One of the more mentally taxing aspects of the college application process, or any application process for that matter, is acquiring the right recommendations from people. Often students believe that any letter from any individual will do. Some students do not take seriously the notion of relationship building with their teachers, coaches and mentors and how that plays into the quality of recommendation letters that they will receive. Also, many teachers -- people who have gone through the process of acquiring recommendation letters and understand the importance of these letters -- do not give their attention to them as they should. Maybe it is because we're all told that recommendation letters don't matter as much when compared to grades and standardized test scores. The reality is that while test scores and grades can vouch for your intellect and memorization skills, they cannot vouch for your character. A recommendation letter can; and while a great recommendation may or may not achieve the desired goal, a poorly intended letter will do a disservice to any student.

I have heard horror stories from some of my friends, who are guidance counselors, about teachers and others who have written piss-poor letters of recommendations for their students; letters with misspellings, poor grammar and letters with only three to four sentences. If I never received a letter like that, I wouldn't have believed them. To add insult to injury, colleges don't want students to read or have read the recommendation letter(s) to ensure the letter's "integrity." That is one of the more asinine of rules in the college application process. Sure, as a student, you must do your homework and make sure that you go to the right people to write for you a great recommendation letter, but a student cannot control what a person writes and how they execute a recommendation on paper. Some teachers hit the mark and others miss it horribly. We should all strive to never be the teacher, advisor, coach or whoever that misses the mark.

I can only assume that I received some good recommendation letters when I was in high school. I really don't know because I never saw them; they all had to be "sealed." I can only assume they were good because I got into six of the nine schools I applied to. I know I received better recommendations in college when I applied to grad school -- I read some of those so I know they were good. There are two letters however that were written for me when I applied for a doctorate a few years back that are the ones that I will never forget. One of those letters came from a grad school professor. She wrote me the best letter of recommendation I ever received. She vouched for my character, my work ethic and my intelligence. It was well written and I am sure that it was well received. I had only known her for a year at the time.

The second of those letters also came from a professor of mine who was also my boss at the time (I worked in her research institute full-time). She and I had known each other for two to three years. Her letter was the worse I have ever received, to my knowledge. It was reworded and rephrased from an already put together letter of recommendation and it was done by her secretary. All my professor/boss did was sign the letter... maybe. It was four sentences long and what could you possibly explain in four sentences? While I wasn't crushed, I was a bit taken a back. I had known this woman for a few years; she was the person to give me a job to help pay for grad school. She entrusted me with many serious tasks while working with her -- I expected a bit more than just four sentences. Nevertheless, I took the recommendation in stride and when a student asks me to write them a letter of recommendation; I am always reminded of these two letters as an example of how to write and how not to write a letter of recommendation.

Here are 5 tips for writing a letter of recommendation during this college application season:

1. First and foremost, if a student asks you to write them a letter of recommendation and for whatever reason you cannot or will not write it, then just tell them no -- don't leave them hanging. Also, tell them why you said no to their request.

2. If you decide to write a letter of recommendation, make sure that you know the student; you should have taught them for a year or two and it is a plus if you have an extracurricular relationship with the student.

3. When writing, write a biased letter -- this letter is not to be objective. You are writing in favor of this student getting into college. However, do not inject the opinions and biases of others with respect to the student; the only opinion that matters is your own.

4. Do not rush when writing. Believe it or not, readers can tell from the structure of the letter whether or not a recommender took their time or rushed through writing -- rushing can denote a lack of care and "rushing" is not the same thing as "flowing" through the writing process.

5. Lastly, be sure to add a personal note about the character of your student, in addition to speaking about their abilities in the classroom. I cannot stress enough that grades and test scores can only go so far in a society where having good character is a must.

During this season of college applications, there will be those recommenders who do not follow through with writing a good and well crafted letter. Don't be like them.