28 January 2007

Why Letters of Recommendation are Irrelevant

As part of my job, I read college applications. I take this pretty seriously. If a student took the time to submit a complete application, I think that I should give it due time to review. Many admission decisions are pretty cut and dry without spending too much time meticulously combing through the entire file; others require a deeper perusal, to include verification of proper high school curriculum, a variety of extracurricular activities, and the letters of recommendation.

Unfortunately, all too many letters of recommendation give me no more insight to a student's ability to succeed in a college environment than a Magic 8-Ball. Most letters don't warrant more than a cursory glance because I have read all of the glowing letters that spout over-the-top plaudits for (usually) average students. Still, once or twice a year, I get a noteworthy letter, and this year was no exception - usually one extraordinary in it's helpfulness and one extraordinary in it's uselessness. My extraordinary (positive) letter came from a good friend who used to work in college admissions and now works as a counselor at a private high school. The letter was forthright, but had style and personality. It also gave me insight into the student that I could not have gleaned from the application or even a personal interview with the student. My OTHER letter arrived this past week:

To Whom It May Concern:

[Student's Full Name] is the student who is going to make a difference in your classroom. I have had the pleasure of knowing [student] for two years. I taught English 11 and World Literature 12. He is a mature young man who gives positive direction for the other students. He is a true role model for others to follow. [student] is intelligent, creative, mature, hardworking and wants to create a positive influence in all he deals with. He excels in all he does with great determination.

[Student] has demonstrated high levels of initiative in learning. wants to make a difference in his life; he is not going to settle for second best. He realizes life is very competetive. knows that he has to earn everything that comes his way. [Student] realizes that education is a privilege and he is going to take full advantage of it. Based on performance, his rite of passage into college will be a smooth one.

[Student] realizes that school is a multi-faceted experience. [Student] is a vital part of [High School Name]. He has strong leadership qualities.

[Student] has left a great mark on me. He realizes education is the foundation cornerstone in starting a rewarding career. [Student]'s initiative to study in your college shows that he has taken the time to find the college that is going to put him on the right foot and in the right directions to give him every opportunity to use education to make a desirable candidate in any profession he chooses to follow.

[Student]'s hard work, responsibilities, creativity, long hours hitting the books, extra curricular activities, self esteem, and strong Christian values has prepared him for the tasks he will be expected to complete in college. [Student] is well rounded and will be a desirable candidate ofr you to consider.

I highly recommend without hesitation [Student] to your institution. He will be a positive asset to your school. You will end up being as proud of him as I have been and [High School Name]. Please do not hesitate to call me with any questions.

[Teacher's Name and Subject Area]
Stop for a second and try not to focus on the grammar and syntax errors (if you can read my writing, this should be a piece of cake!). The reason why this letter is useless is not really in the content. Rather, the reason why this letter is useless is that it appears to have absolutely no basis in fact.

The student in question submitted a transcript that includes an overall grade point average of 1.7 and standardized test scores almost 33% below our average - almost to the point that one would wonder if the score was for one section of the SAT or the composite score. Lastly, the student earned a grade of 'D' in the course which the letter writer claims to have taught. What about the grades and test scores that this student earned supports the letter that this teacher sent? Why on earth would a teacher who graded a student as barely passing offer up this positive letter of recommendation.

This student was clearly not going to gain admission with or without the above letter. Unfortunately, the letter leaves me with a negative impression of the writer. If I were to receive another application with a letter of recommendation from this person, how could I take what they say seriously? Further, won't this experience come to my mind when I read another application from this high school? I surely don't mean to indict an entire high school on the basis of one bad letter of recommendation, but I think it would be hard to not think of this when I receive the next application(s) from this school.

I can only think that the letter writer was just phoning this one in. I get asked all the time how many letters of recommendation should accompany the application. People give me a baffled look when I give them my standard answer. I usually tell people that they only need one - but, one good one, which they are not likely to get. I go on to explain that sending me five letters that all say pretty much the same thing - how wonderful the student is - "she plays six varsity sports;" "he is working on curing cystic fibrosis;" "when he farts, it smells like roses!" - are not helpful. I would trade five letters filled with unabashed praise for one clear and concise assessment of a student's strengths AND weaknesses. Yes, believe it or not, most 17 year-olds have weaknesses. You would never know it from most letters of recommendation (see above), but the letters that ignore any possible areas in which the student can improve often hold no weight with me. Letters that directly address any student flaws immediately cause me to go back and readdress the letter writer's assessment of the student's positive traits.

Teachers and counselors have the ability to return the letter of recommendation to some relevance, but in it's current form, these letters serve no purpose other than to make the average student's file a touch thicker.

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La Maestra said...

I always address both strengths and weaknesses in letters of recommendation (something I write a lot of--I've done over 30 this year, and I have more coming up in the next month for scholarships.) However, because I do this, I tell students that if they want a letter from me, that I won't actually give them a copy to read. I don't want my evaluation of a student's weaknesses (no matter how honest or tempered with strengths) to come back and fly in my face when Perfect Student doesn't get into Harvard.

I also take time to be very specific in my letter about my experiences with the student and how they demonstrate his/her strengths and weaknesses. I'd say that, on average, I probably spend close to an hour writing each letter of rec.

But I realize that I am the exception, not the rule, as I've seen letters written by many of my colleagues. I think most people need a tutorial in how to write a good letter of recommendation--they simply have no idea how.

Anonymous said...

Law school admissions obviously require letters of recommendation, and as such, I've requested four different recommendations recently. Three of them gave me a copy, and not a single one mentioned weaknesses. After reading this, I am wishing that I would have requsted they talk about an area where I can improve (or at least an area where they have seen improvement). Anyway, my two cents... -dkk

happychyck said...

My jaw dropped to the floor when you revealed the academic performance of the student for whom the letter was written. I've written sincere letters like that a few times in my career--one of my best for a young man who attended Cornell. More often, I struggle to write anything useful or positive about mediocre students. What do you say about kids like that? "They can do it if they want to. Whether they want to badly enough is still yet to be seen..." Can I be that honest?

The Travelin' Man said...

DKK - I think that law school applications are, by nature, very different than undergraduate applications. Therefore, the letters of recommendation are also different. I think emphasizing an area where they have personally witnessed you improve over time is valuable.

Happy - I suspect that writing letters of recommendation are probably one of the most difficult aspects of your job. From the letter readers' perspective, it seems like it is easy to write letters for the academic studs, but a true "stud" is probably a once-a-year occurrence. What about everyone else? I also understand that it is your role to "sell" your students - and we know that we're being sold, by the way. So, what evolves is this game where you (the collective you, of course) tell us all the wonderful things about your generally average students - and we try our hardest to translate from "teacher to English." For instance, in the above letter "[Student] realizes that school is a multi-faceted experience. [Student] is a vital part of [High School Name]. He has strong leadership qualities..." can only mean that the student "cannot keep his mind on more than one subject at a time. If he spent as much time on his academics instead of extra-curriculars, he would have better grades."

It's a little like dating - when your buddy tells you that a girl that he is trying to fix you up with has "a great personality," most guys will read between the lines! :-)