The Art of Recommendation

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.

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