This evening, I finished writing the last of this year's group of college recommendation letters. In previous years, I have written as many as 25 letters for students. This year, to manage my life a bit better, I limited myself to 10 (and still agreed to write 11). Provided below are some of the highlights from this year's batch. In all cases, the names of specific students have been redacted. There is a definite format to these types of things, but even then the interested letter writer can still find room to have fun. I'm personally a fan of a strong, highly individualized opening paragraph:
If I have to make a choice between the smart student and the kind student, I’ll take kindness every time. Intelligence, though often overrated, will only take a person so far. Kindness, on the other hand, will open more doors than any other virtue. Fortunately, in the case of STUDENT, I don’t have to choose one or the other, as she is both a bright young woman, and an remarkably kind human being.
Sometimes I'll range a bit widely:
As is typical of my early tactics in a school year, I will often fool around with the pronunciation of my student’s names. For whatever reason, they always get a kick out of it, and I find that it’s a good time. Middle names are guessed for a particular, given, initial. Formal names are informalized, or the other way around. And so it was two years ago, in Honors Chemistry, when I decided to turn STUDENT'S first name into STUDENT(FORMAL). But the joke was on me, as STUDENT promptly informed me that his proper first name was, legally speaking, STUDENT(INFORMAL), and furthermore, that the B. that stood in on my roster for his middle name was in fact short for Blizzard, a name that denoted the particular circumstances of his delivery into the world in the winter of 1996. Looking back on it, I shouldn’t have been all that surprised by either of these developments, as STUDENT is many things as a student, but more than anything else, I would say that he is a unique individual.
But I only do so when I am trying to make a larger point:
I first met STUDENT during Back To School Night when he was a freshman. In an anecdote that I’m sure he would rather me not recall on his college recommendation letter, I found myself accosted by a parent with her son in tow, asking me what I felt was the appropriate sequence for her son to follow in his science career at Deer Park. It was a jovial conversation, somewhat unique but not totally atypical. Usually, that would be the end of it. I would not have thought about it again, had I not had that same young man in my sophomore Honors Chemistry class. Even then, I might not mention it now, except to note that STUDENT is a rare instance of a student who is actually more capable than even his parent might suggest. He is an intellectual talent, but more than that he is one of the most capable young men that I have had the pleasure of teaching.
The second paragraph is always about my classroom interactions with the student:
STUDENT handled herself with aplomb. She was always willing to challenge herself with the material, and she was never afraid to ask questions when she needed to. It was a pleasure to have her in class. Aside from her willingness to work hard, I was always struck by her kindness in her interactions with her peers. STUDENT is a natural helper. She always seemed to serve as the quiet facilitator in the groups that she was placed in, and I never observed her to have anything other than a kind, encouraging word for her peers. STUDENT has a remarkable grace in what she does, and her ability to work so well with so many different people will serve her very well going forward.
Again, I'm not hesitant to call it like I see it:
STUDENT was a sophomore in my Honors Chemistry class, where he presented as the classic version of the “unchallenged mind”. He did the work he was interested in, aced every exam I that I sent his way, and was quite content to leave it at that, even if it meant that he wouldn’t have a “perfect” homework average, or similar statistics. And who can blame him? I certainly couldn’t. To be the kind of student who could handle such a difficult body of material with such facility is to be the kind of student who doesn’t need to do as much rote practice with the material as many others. I understand this from my own history in school, and I think STUDENT is learning this lesson well. A look at his transcript will show a student who has consistently challenged himself with the most difficult material our school has to offer, while very much charting a course of his own. STUDENT understands the need to be interested in a subject to fully engage with it. College will be the place where he is finally given the chance to deeply kick the tires of his interests, and find the course that best suits him. Personally, I can’t wait to see what he decides to pursue.
This is often where I'll work in the relevant details of the student's life story to create a unique picture in the mind of future readers:
I first met STUDENT when he was a sophomore in my Honors Chemistry course. Actually, I’ve known STUDENT a bit longer than that. My very first experiences with STUDENT were when he was a sixth grader, helping out and seeming to enjoy the Homecoming float-building parties that were held at his house (his older sister was a member of the Class of 2011, which I co-advised). So, for four years prior to being a student, I loosely knew STUDENT as a polite and unintrusive presence. It was not until his tenth grade year that I became acquainted with STUDENT as a student, and I must say that I was fortunate to make his acquaintance.
I'm also not above pointing out where I feel there are mitigating circumstances:
I know from talking with my colleagues that STUDENT brings this same unceasing friendliness and willingness to engage with material to all of her classes. She is universally respected, and similarly appreciated by everyone who knows her. This is remarkable in and of itself, but I happen to know from talking with her that STUDENT has not had the easiest of experiences outside of our school. She has been dealt more than her fair share of family difficulties, and has been asked to support her family in a way that I could not imagine in my own experience. I don’t mention this to gain her sympathy (indeed, STUDENT would be the first to say that she merits none), but only to make the point that even with difficult circumstances, STUDENT is far kinder and friendlier than many students who have been far more fortunate. If that is not the hallmark of genuine character, then I am hard-pressed to find what is.
I tend to throw in a paragraph about the student's interests outside of class:
It is not so much that STUDENT is intelligent (though a look at his transcript will demonstrate just how intelligent he is), but rather that he is so excellent at so many things, and so remarkably modest about it all. You wouldn’t know from a day-to-day experience with him that you were dealing with anything other than a highly considerate, and courteous young man. I can not recall ever seeing another student so gifted in so many areas who was also so easy-going about all of it. He is a varsity baseball player, and President of the National Honor Society, who competes on the math team. He is a student council yeoman who volunteers his time at toy drives, and food drives, and baking meals for families staying at the Ronald McDonald House. And he is one of the most academically talented students whom I have ever worked with, who is also more loved and respected by more facets of our community than I can recall any one student ever being. If I hadn’t seen it for myself over the past four years, I wouldn’t believe that he actually exists.
Closing is often somewhat formulaic, but always to a specific point. A summation of the student:
It is my honor to write this letter of recommendation for STUDENT as he applies to pursue his “higher education.” STUDENT is a remarkable person in so many different ways, and is unlike any other student whom I have ever had the pleasure of teaching in how he represents quality and class in every area of his scholastic life.
A brief statement as to (current) future plans:
I know from our conversations that STUDENT is unsure of exactly what he wants to pursue, and that his interests are constantly changing, but that he is drawn to doing something in the sciences. For all of the talk of a “STEM crisis” in this country, I will say that as long as students like STUDENT are moving into the field, we won’t have much to worry about.
And a hale and hearty send-off:
I am eager to see what he decides to do with his life, and I am sure that it will be as great as he is. He will be a credit to whatever institution he decides to align himself with, and I wish him nothing but the very best.
I get asked to write a lot of recommendation letters, and I take it very seriously. Ten years in to this career, I continue to find that my students are examples of the very best and brightest young people our society produces. It is the fundamental honor of my working life to be able to work with them, and I can only hope that by expressing my sentiments as fully and honestly as I can, the various readers of these letters will come away feeling some small piece of what I do when I think of them.
But I do think that capping it at 10 is a fantastic idea!