Selections from Recent Letters

believe that the tide of recommendations is finally over this year.  I like writing recommendations, and I’d like to think that I do it pretty well.  I try to have fun with it, and make them something worth the reader’s while (a good rule of thumb for all writing).  My recommendations tend to follow a certain flow, which I think works pretty well in almost universal circumstances.

Here, then, are selected lines that I wrote in the 16 letters that I wrote on behalf of seniors applying to college, in illustration of my process. The quotes come from different letters.  I have taken the liberty of removing student names.

I always try to have a strong opener:

"Nice will always get you farther with me than pretty much anything else.  I am a big fan of intelligence, but if given the choice between intelligence and nice, I’m always going to go with nice.  In the case of <STUDENT>, I don’t have to make such a choice, as he is both quite bright, and extremely nice."

Sometimes I go out on a limb early. These tend to be the best letters that I write, from a content perspective. They’re just fun:

"As the slogan goes, I still love “The Beatles”.  I’m a John Lennon guy.  Most likely you love “The Beatles”, too.  You’re probably a John or Paul fan, or maybe George.  But I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone who loves “The Beatles” as deeply as <STUDENT>.  And <STUDENT> is a Ringo fan."

"I don’t know about you, but I’m a sucker for a great laugh.  For whatever reason, as I think back on the years that I have been privileged to teach children science, the great laughers always make me smile.  It seems like every year, there is a student whose laughter can, just by virtue of sounding out in a classroom, make an entire room of students laugh in kind.  This is perhaps never truer than in the case of <STUDENT>, unquestionably the greatest laugher of them all. "

Note:  The letter that the above paragraph came from also included my favorite, throw-away, line of the year (“He works at a local laser-taggery”)  

Every once in a while, I try to connect a particular student to a larger concept that my experience of them evokes:

"I grow weary of portrayals of modern youth in a negative light.  If popular perception were accurate, the average student who walks in to my classroom is some sort of slothful, self-indulgent, and superficial child, to preoccupied with whatever twaddle is on the television to care about anything other than his or her own selfish aims.  In reality, I find the students who I have the pleasure of teaching to be among the most hard-working, intelligent and deep thinkers that I deal with in any regular capacity.  If you desire evidence to support this claim, you need look no farther than <STUDENT>.”

Next, I’ll always move in to a paragraph that explains my experience of the student as a student:

"He is not the sort of student to boast or jape, but he comports himself with a subtle dignity that I only wish more students demonstrated.  Give me a room full of <STUDENT> and I would die a content man."

"This year, she is taking both AP Biology and Physics, for as many as four periods of science a day.  Again, she is sadly not a student in my AP Biology section, but I know from discussing her with my colleagues that she is once again her typical self, which is to say that everybody who I know who has taught <STUDENT> is unequivocally glad to have had the experience."

"His mind is an object of fascination to me, impressive in its operation and magical in its ability.  Very quickly, <STUDENT> became my reference point in the class.  If we were calculating an answer, and mine differed from <STUDENT>, I knew that I was wrong.  Unsurprisingly, <STUDENT> was the only student in his year to receive a perfect score on the Chemistry Regents exam.  While this sort of thing makes a teacher feel good about his teaching, I would be kidding myself if I said it had anything to do with me." 

Then it’s on to a section on student interests:

"<STUDENT> wants to be a lawyer.  Jokes about the profession aside, I’m sure that we can both agree that becoming a lawyer is no easy task.  In fact, I might go so far as to suggest that most students who claim to want to become lawyers will be expected to shirk from the necessary preparation once they understand what it entails.  This is not the case with <STUDENT>."

Never be afraid to reach for the things that are the most incredible, even if they don’t involve you per se:

"All of this would be amazing in and of itself, but I haven’t even mentioned what <STUDENT> does in her spare time.  She is an archer.  A legitimate, award-winning, bear-hunting, archer.”

It’s easiest when the students make it easy for you:

"She is a member of the national honor society, and the student council, where she is currently the secretary.  She is a member of the community service club, and team universal, a club that brings the best students in the building together to work with our special education population.  She has participated in food drives, worked to tutor students, and has planned myriad college fairs, fund raisers and the occasional Christmas party.  She is equally fluent in English and Italian.  These are the sorts of things that make this teacher stop and realize just how fortunate he is to get to work with students like <STUDENT> (as if there were really any other students just like <STUDENT>)."

Finally, I always try to close strongly, and, if possible, connect back to the theme of the letter:

"<STUDENT> is planning on dual-majoring in Computer Science and Asian Language studies, with an eye toward working in the emerging fields of international computing.  She is the only student whom I have ever taught who has expressed a desire to follow this sort of career path.  I can’t say I’m surprised. <STUDENT> is an exception in the best possible meaning of the word."  

"To paraphrase a certain someone, he knows he’s go to pay his dues if he wants to sing the blues, and he knows it don’t come easy.  But for all that, I have no doubt that he has the clarity of purpose to know what he wants to do in life, and the strength of focus to achieve his goals.  I wish him all the luck in the world."