I’ve just finished writing college letters of recommendation for former students of mine, and that got me thinking of the mechanics of writing these letters. Recommendation letters are a writing genre unto themselves. Just like with any good piece of writing, there’s a convention or formula people tend to use, but the very best pieces flout the convention successfully (the very worst flout it poorly, but that’s another post).
Writing a stellar letter is important to me. I want a letter that conveys exactly what I mean, to someone I may never meet. Studies have shown that letters that are more personal and show how well the recommender knows the student tend to hold more weight. Anyone can compose a generic letter, but I want to write the letter that best shows off just how hard the student has worked in my class, and how much they deserve a chance to make something of themselves.
So I do think about all those things that make a good recommendation: understanding a student’s goals, personality match, traits that will serve them well in a university setting, examples, things from personal life that give weight, specific language, evidence of growth and potential for further growth, etc.
Then I approach it the way I would when writing history: It’s all about the story.
I share one memory that really illuminates what kind of scholar and person the student is. Then I pick apart the story to highlight what makes them extraordinary. These letters often become quite literary- I try to make sure I’ve set up a protagonist that is multi-faceted and interesting. I line up their goals. I set up a conflict that prevents them from achieving the goal. I reveal some backstory, to highlight either how unusual this person/story is, or how they exemplify the typical person of their cohort. I show how they overcame, or failed to overcome, hardship. In the end, I discuss the ramifications of their actions. Finding out what happens in the end is one of the surest ways to grab the reader, and I don’t see why a recommendation letter should be any different. I can convey more about this applicant through a well-crafted non-fiction story than I can by listing out their positive qualities in list form.
The story format works, because often success in higher ed doesn’t come down to how clever a student is. Cleverness gets them through high school, but good habits, a strong heart, and perseverance in the face of rejection get them through college. Of course, the stats are nice- for example, what college doesn’t want to admit the star athlete or valedictorian? But ultimately, a college is only as good as its alumni, and the alumni who go on to do great things are the ones who, like a good hero in a book, overcome tremendous obstacles, roll with the punches, think of others, and show tremendous growth from the beginning to the end of the story.
The kids who I agree to write for become the protagonists of my letters. So far, their success rate has been impressive.