Monday, October 05, 2015

A Jesuit's Guide to Writing College Recommendation Letters

I remember quite clearly how exhilarating it was to be asked by a first-semester high school senior, “Hey, Abba, I was wondering if you would write a college recommendation letter.” I took it as a sign that I’d arrived as a teacher: this student trusted that I would be able to present him well to college admissions committees.

The novelty began to wear off after I received six more requests that day. Some students were very formal in requesting a letter, others much more casual. Having agreed to write six letters and with the prospect of more coming, I knew I needed to find a way to work efficiently and practically. What I offer, then, is the fruits of a great deal of trial-and-error.

Before You Begin to Write

Being asked to write on a student’s behalf is an honor. If you do not feel capable of writing a letter that will portray the student in the best possible light, you owe it to the student to be forthright and decline the invitation. Sometimes I simply didn’t’ know the student well enough to write about him; in one case I don’t think I’d have found a single nice thing to say about a kid. Rather than string him along, I simply said that I didn’t feel capable of writing a letter that would portray him in his best light and tried to help him find a teacher who could do a better job.

Once you have agreed, you should tell the student that you will not write until you have been given all relevant information. I always asked for a copy of the student’s CV, his application essay(s), and a list of the schools he wanted to attend.


Having read the information, I posed three questions to myself:
1.     How have I come to know this student in a unique way? What is it that stands out?
2.     What does this student offer to a prospective college or university?
3.     Where does this student still need to be formed?

Let me take each of these in turn.

How have I come to know this student in a unique way? What is it that stands out?

To the best of my ability, I try recall something defining about the student. Writing on behalf of a kid who had lost a student senate election, I started out, “_____ is a loser.” I then said that he had, in fact, lost an election but showed such grace and character in his defeat that I came to see him as a young man of tremendous integrity. In another situation I wrote, “Every time ________ raised his hand, a knot developed in my stomach because I could never anticipate where his question might lead the discussion.” This gave me an entry into talking about the student’s sharp intellect and incisive ability to raise questions.

Of course, not every student elicits this sort of narrative. But through your own experiences and with the personal statement you have been given, you should be able to assemble some sort of snapshot that gives the reader the impression that you offer credible testimony. One extraordinarily introverted student wrote beautiful poetry, so I began by saying something like, “____ is a volcanic introvert, silently throwing forth obsidian poetry born of extreme internal temperatures.” Some kids have a great smile, a fun personality, or a generous heart: the writer can give an impression, a snapshot, of the student to help humanize the reams of data the admissions committee must pore over.

What does this student offer to a prospective college or university?

In light of everything you know of the student, what does he or she offer to a university? Why would a school want this kid? Is she a passionate researcher? A devoted writer? Can you see in him the prospect of a great doctor, a fabulous teacher, or an artist? If the student wants to be an English or History major, and you’ve taught that subject, can you say something how the student thinks and how this might contribute to the field? If the student is a bundle of energy and a total gadfly, perhaps you can suggest that this is the sort of kid who is the embodiment of hospitality and who has a gift for making those around him or her to feel comfortable.

This is why, to my mind, it is so important to be judicious in agreeing to write on behalf of a student. You should be able to know the student in a way that permits you to anticipate how the student will bring her gifts and talents to an institution. Ask yourself, Why would the school want this student? What’s the selling point?

Where does this student still need to be formed?

As a Jesuit priest, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Messiah. Sometimes letters are so full of encomiums and plaudits that it’s almost like the student is running for Savior of the Universe rather than gaining admission to a university!

Every one of us is a work in progress and we are always in the process of formation. As you look at this student, use your imagination: where does this kid need still to be formed? I often introduced this paragraph by saying, “_______ can be challenged to grow in the following ______ areas.” I would then describe those places where he still needed to grow. “Gifted with a tremendous intellect, he can often be impatient when other students do not pick up material as quickly as he does. He will thrive in small classroom discussions where he will rub elbows with students possessed of equal passion and skill.” See how that works? I can still “sell” the student while showing that he’s yet a work-in-progress. Ideally, an admissions committee will want to hear how the student is going to benefit from attending their school.

The admissions process often encourages students to own their triumphs and their gifts. A good letter of recommendation is capable of giving a more well-rounded and holistic portrait of the student, permitting readers to see depth and potential the student himself or herself might not see. As with all things in life, one must use judgment and discretion. Especially in addressing a student’s weakness, try to show how this area is not a liability but is actually a place where a school can fit a need and do the work of forming a young life.

Ancillary Thoughts

 It is my firm belief that no letter should go beyond one-page. As I sketched the questions, there are three distinct thoughts that I try to articulate. One thought, one relatively short paragraph. After the final paragraph, I give something a final commendation. “_____ is a kind, talented, and wonderful young man. I commend him to your university with great joy and no reservation.” “Although ____ has had many struggles, the upward trend of his performance and his growth in maturity leave me little doubt: he will continue to grow and flourish and I encourage you to offer him admission to your school.”

Whatever you do, do not use a form letter. I think it is better to tell a student a firm “No” and help him to find another writer than to use a form letter where you cut-and-paste names. I have seen it and I feel sorry for those students.

At the risk of sounding sentimental, I consider writing these letters as a spiritual practice. When I sit down a student’s file and have a chance to think about how I’ve come to know him and have seen him grow, it’s hard not to marvel at how much impact we can have as teachers. These letters are spiritual testimonials, ways of celebrating where a kid has been and where the student is going. Because I see this as an often under-appreciated dimension of cura personalis, I took great delight in writing for these young men. Indeed, very often I found myself consoled and really rooting for the kid when I had finished the letter.

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