Wednesday, November 5, 2014

If You Can't Say Something Nice


It was the first day of Christmas break, and I had stopped by the office for a couple of minutes on my way to do frantic, last-minute shopping.  As I was walking out the door, the phone rang.  Don’t answer, advised an internal voice to which I have since learned to pay heed.  But answer it I did.

On the other end of the line was the Director of Admissions at a large public university located outside Virginia.  He explained that on his desk was the application folder for one of my students.  I cringed when he named the student, whose record was, to put it politely, undistinguished (or perhaps distinguished by his lack of achievement).  On the student’s folder was a one-word note from the Associate Director—“Why?”  But, the Director continued, he had read my recommendation and there was something telling him he should give the student a chance.

I stayed silent, waiting for the other shoe to drop.  Finally he said, “I’m sorry, the best I can do is offer him summer school admission.”  As I was doing a celebratory dance (which you should be thankful you didn’t have to see), I responded that I thought that was fair.  As we said our goodbyes, he asked one final question, “Have you ever thought about becoming a creative writer?”

Describing the recommendation letter as creative writing does not mean that it is fiction, only that it is an art form. I’ve spent most of the past month thinking only about writing recommendations, but now that I seem to have survived November 1, I thought I would take a moment to reflect on the art of the recommendation.

We are about halfway through what my children used to call “recommendation” season, the time of year when I was grumpier than usual.  I am envious of colleagues who are able to get the bulk of their rec letters written during the summer.  I’ve never been able to do that, and might be too old to start now.  As a result, the rhythm of the fall is dictated by the next deadline and the number of letters that need to be written.  I wish I were as organized and disciplined in every part of my life as I am during recommendation season.

In the independent school world the value and impact of “the letter” may be overrated.  When I was first hired as a college counselor thirty years ago, it seemed that the ability to write was the only skill anyone was concerned about.  Today I suspect that rec letters from teachers have higher value, seen as more likely to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

The counselor recommendation letter serves several purposes.  It is part legal brief, making the case for the student and laying out evidence.  It is part character study, bringing the application and transcript to life.  It can also serve the function that footnotes serve in big, scholarly non-fiction books.  If the transcript is the primary text, the rec letter provides the footnotes.

In his book, The Call of Stories, the psychiatrist Robert Coles says that each person has a unique story and that the purpose of psychiatry is to discern that story.  In a perfect world, the job of a college counselor in writing a recommendation is to tell the student’s story.  Of course, we don’t live in a perfect world.  Our public school colleagues who are faced with ridiculous counseling loads and myriad other duties that push college counseling onto the back burner would need super powers to tell their students’ stories in any more than a superficial way.

I think there are four types of stories (if I’m missing others, I’d love to know):

            --The story of accomplishment

            --The story of growth

            --The story of adversity overcome

            --The story of potential

Obviously some of these are easier to tell than others.

How long should a recommendation letter be?  The prevailing wisdom is one page, that admissions officers have neither the time nor the interest in reading more.  I get that, but it will be no surprise to regular readers of this blog that brevity is a challenge for me and my letters are usually longer.  My thinking is that I have one opportunity to say what I need to say on the student’s behalf. I have friends at other schools that have moved to a bullet-point format in their letters, but I’m not ready to move in that direction.  The change I made several years ago is to frontload my letters so that the opening paragraph makes the argument in brief for a reader who chooses not to read the entire letter.

I have always believed that recommendation letters are read negatively, that if you don’t say something it is assumed that you can’t.  If you highlight how diligent a student is, it may be read as evidence that the student lacks ability.  A rec letter is an opportunity to put a student’s record in context, to explain a grade or a class or a teacher or life circumstances that are relevant in understanding the student’s journey.

Recommendation writers are like politicians, always looking for the perfect euphemism, the sufficiently vague phrase that is open to interpretation, preferably faulty.  Many years ago, Robert Thornton, an economics professor at Lehigh, developed the Lexicon of Inconspicuously Ambiguous Recommendations, or LIAR.  His examples were oriented toward job recommendations, and were meaningful for what they didn’t say rather than what they did.  The phrase “You will be fortunate to get this person to work for you” could be high praise or might be missing the important information (no one else has been able to get them to work).  In a college recommendation, describing a student as “entrepreneurial” could mean they sell drugs to all their friends, while “he hopes to become an engineer” might be missing the all-important (but he better learn to drive a train).  And should the statement, “I would place him in a class by himself” be interpreted figuratively or literally?

The biggest ethical issue attached to recommendation writing is what information to include and what to leave out.  I see my job as being an advocate for the student, presenting the best case I can for them, without compromising my credibility.  I have therefore never written a recommendation intended to be negative.  I try to follow my grandmother’s advice—“If you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all.”

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