Who Am I Recommending Again? asks The Crabby Counselor

This week Crabby talks about teachers’ recommendations for students.

Recommendations are funny things. Not ha-ha funny, but chameleonically funny, like adverbs and adjectives. Words like “diligent” and “decent,” perfectly fine words in normal life, can become doom-laden in a college applicant’s recommendation. When Crabby was an admission dean, students described as “diligent” were seen as plodders, nose-to-the-grindstone workers who labored well but not too wisely. How these words are perceived depends on how the institution perceives itself. (“We don’t want diligent students here! We want the energetically unorthodox!” See?) Yet another aspect of the application process over which students have no control.

When teachers are asked to write recommendations for students, they are being handed a double-edged sword and asked to sharpen it. One edge is the reality of the students and their work; the other is the credibility of the teacher. Either side can be dangerous if not handled carefully. Although colleges now routinely shred recommendations after decisions are made, there’s always the possibility some negative remark will return to haunt the writer. But sticking to the facts and giving examples can keep you from being slashed, and can let readers know you can be trusted to help the college make appropriate decisions.

It’s easy to write for the terrific student that you loved having in your class. The key is not to overdo it. If a student is truly bright, say so and give a few examples. That’s all you need to do; the more you embellish, the more artificial your portrait looks. As enthusiastic as you may be about students’ capabilities, you want to remain disinterested (it doesn’t mean “uninterested,” dammit!) so you are seen as an objective observer despite the fact that you’re not, really. Again, don’t slaver over every detail. Especially, avoid making creepy personal observations like, “Her honey-blond hair glinting in the fluorescent light of the chem lab, Meghan manages to make every class a delight.” Uh, no, Mr. Humbert, just the facts, please.

Writing for low- or under-achieving students may or may not be a problem, depending on your level of compassion and where they are applying. Despite his personal prickliness, Crabby believes a recommender should find at least one good thing to say about those in the bottom half and try to balance negatives with positives. “Tries very hard,” and “Doesn’t give up despite difficulties,” at least attest to some strong character. If a student isn’t trying hard, a “may pick up when he finds his true calling” is at least inoffensive and hopeful. But look at where students are applying as well. If you think the institution is a match for the student, you can be positive about that, focusing on the congruences. Remember also that a student may not be trying in your class (and why is that, Miss Landers?) but be doing well in others or in other areas (athletics, theater, etc.) In that case, trying to sketch a full portrait may be in order.

Those in the middle of the bell curve are the most difficult to write for. They do decent work and are diligent, but they seem to have few characteristics that stand out or can be called to mind. When confronted with the need to write for Cyndi, you come up empty. You can see from your gradebook that she’s done B work and has turned everything in nicely done and on time. But she’s never really contributed to class or turned in anything memorable. So, OK, focus on those things and let her colleges know she’s going to be the “glue that holds any class together” or “one of those who will be part of the overall life of the community.” Nothing wrong with those qualities; every leader needs good followers, every club needs good participants. Some teachers ask students to summarize any particulars they want the teacher to include. Crabby reminded students that there were many of them but only one of him, which allayed any misconceptions. This can be a lifesaver.

That being said, don’t agree to write a recommendation if you don’t know the student or don’t think you can say anything good at all. Crabby knows that sounds obvious, but on at least one occasion he came across one that was all of five sentences, two of which began “If I knew Pancho better…” Remember that when students ask you to write, they are relying on you to provide specific information about them to the college. If you can’t do it, you can soften the blow by saying, “Pancho, I don’t feel I could do you justice” or “Perhaps Mr. Method would be able to write more clearly about you.” If you’re the required rec writer, just suck it up and do your best.

Teachers, however enthusiastic or popular you are, stick to the topic at hand–your student. Don’t tell readers about all your awards and the history of your curriculum. A few lines about the length of time you’ve been teaching, the courses you’ve taught your student in and related facts put your student in necessary context. Too much about you is, well, about you, not the student. We’ll read your book eventually, promise.

Alternatively, Crabby insists that you not write a template recommendation and simply change students’ names. He once had an intense case of deja vu while reading a chemistry teacher’s recommendation for a young lady. He tried to shake it off, but couldn’t, so he checked the slate of students from that high school and sure enough, there was the same rec, word for word, with another student’s name substituted. You might think that after reading hundreds of applications Crabby would have had no way of noticing such a thing but, alas, you would be wrong. Of course he didn’t hold anything against the applicants, but the teacher’s rec was for naught. In the same vein, avoid lazy adjectival terms like “blue chip” student, “real go-getter,” “one in a million,” and so on. They just make things worse.

Not that Crabby would ever imagine it, but never never never use a recommendation to advance a personal vendetta (although if it’s come to that it’s unlikely a student would ask you in the first place). Crabby doesn’t recall any “torpedo” recs (“Don’t accept this student under any circumstances”) out of the thousands he’s read, but supposes it could happen. Teachers and students should know, however, that they are routinely discounted. In such cases, an admission officer would call the school for clarification. If there is a genuine reservation or if you are in possession of some pertinent information that may have a negative effect on a student’s application, it’s permissible to add a sticky note that says simply, “Call me.” This alerts the reader that there’s something up that needs to remain off the record. It’s the sharpest edge of the sword. The sticky note is easily discarded once the information is relayed.

Crabby thinks that being asked to write a letter of recommendation is a compliment. It shows that students think they know you know them and respect your opinion of them. Of course this isn’t always the case; sometimes students just need the English teacher’s rec. Even so, it’s a subtle way to acknowledge the teacher/student relationship, and having the power position, teachers should respect it and use it wisely. It may feel like a Sisyphean labor, but in the end it’s worth the effort.

Remember that recommendations are just one part of a complete application. Readers expect some coherence among all its elements, so anything that stands out will be flagged as an anomaly and likely followed up on in one way or another. (In fact, Crabby called the template writer’s school’s counselor to let her know she had a lazy teacher who wasn’t really helping his students.) That’s advice for you and your students to remember, because even if you’re not Shakespeare, you’ll do fine writing truly and honestly about the kids you teach, and they’ll do fine in the long run.

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About Will Dix

I am currently writing a book about college admission. I'm interested in the intersection of the college process and American culture. I attended Amherst College in the 1970s, taught high school English and theater at The Hill School in the '80s, returned to Amherst in the '90s as an admission dean, and began the '00s as a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. I then joined Chicago Scholars as Program Director. Currently, I blog about college admission for Forbes.com. I also help community organizations serving low income students understand the college admission process so more students can consider gaining access to higher education. I have a few private college counseling clients that I take by referral only. The views expressed in this blog are mine alone.
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2 Responses to Who Am I Recommending Again? asks The Crabby Counselor

  1. Palmer Muntz says:

    Great overview. If I worked as a high school counselor, I think I’d send all the teachers a link to this post.

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  2. Pingback: 2010 in review « College Counseling Culture

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