Some Recommendations About Recommendation Letters

03/04/2015 01:45 pm ET | Updated May 04, 2015

You scored 5's on all but one of the six AP exams you took as a junior and sophomore. You won the history department award, and took second regionally in Public Forum debate. SAT scores? Through the roof. You worked like crazy to earn outstanding grades. You carried a 4.26 GPA through fall of your senior year. Second-highest in your class.

You got admitted to some great colleges. And yet, you got rejected from almost all of the highly selective colleges to which you applied, including some that you felt were pretty safe.

What happened?

Maybe it was a tough year. Maybe your essays steered clear of humor, personality, or original thought. Maybe every other debate champion in the country applied to the exact same colleges that you did. Maybe the the coffee maker was broken the day they read your file. Some forces are always out of an applicant's control, and some reasons are unknowable.

It sounds, though, as if you did everything right, doesn't it? But there's at least one crucial factor that is hiding in plain sight.

* * *

Grades are, of course, the foundation of a college application. Imagine, though, all the ways by which a student can arrive at an A:

  • Student W frequently gets A-minuses on exams and is disappointed. He comes to office hours and pleads his case. Sometimes, his teachers bump up his grade just to get him to shut up. When they refuse, he nearly trembles with frustration.
  • Student X has never missed a question on an exam. He has never once spoken in class without first being called upon.
  • Student Y has a knack for historical analysis. His teacher often point out brilliant insights on his essays and invites him to chat further about them. He never reads the comments and never taken her up on her invitation.
  • Student Z writes essays a page or two longer than assigned, mainly because she finds herself exploring tangents. She enjoys asking questions in class, and she sometimes makes fun of herself when she gets too excited about a topic. A 20-minute meeting about an in-class essay helped her decide on a term paper topic; she spent three days at the library researching it.

Of these students -- who are all strong -- who do you think has the best chance of getting into a highly selective college?

I can't imagine an admissions officer who wouldn't want choose Student Z. I also can't imagine an admission officer who would want to choose W. How, though, do admission officers know who is the grade-grubber, who is the stoic, who is the mute, and who is the effervescent scholar? How do they discover the human side of a student's transcript? How could an admissions officer find out what goes on in the classroom?

* * *

Students often behave as if recommendation letters don't exist. They love to discuss grades and test scores and extracurricular activities. But they almost never discuss their relationships with their teachers, and they often act if those relationships don't matter. I try to assure them, they do indeed.

Recommendation letters aren't just "letters." They're summations of relationships that, in some cases, might span two or three years. They are, understandably, a mystery for many students. They are one-time affairs. They arise only at the beginning of the senior year even though they may refer to events well in the past. They are almost always confidential. So it's easy for students to go about their days without realizing that every moment in class is an opportunity to bolster, or undermine, a recommendation letter. (Depending on which teachers a student requests a letter from, of course. Junior-year teachers are usually ideal.)

My point here is not to give students yet another thing to worry over. In fact, developing genuine relationships -- which is not to be confused with currying favor -- is one of the easiest things a student can do to improve his applications and, in fact, become a stronger student.

(Note: Many colleges do not require recommendation letters, but most selective colleges do. The University of California system is the most notable exception.)

I wrote many recommendation letters when I taught high school. I sometimes illustrated my evaluations by recounting the tiniest gestures. Students can ask questions. They can seek extra help. They can show they care about the material they're learning and they can take their grades in stride. They can be polite. A brief chat about last night's news, tomorrow's reading, or the teacher's favorite book can make a world of difference.

Of course, a recommendation letter alone is a terrible reason to seek a good relationship. Teachers know when a student is sucking up. Then again, reticent students might be amazed at how easily superficial pleasantries can lead to genuine rapport.

* * *

If even students have trouble forging truly strong relationships, they should, at the very least, abandon those unseemly tactics to which even strong students can fall prey. I am calling for the end of grade-grubbing. The end of competitiveness. The end of reveling in stress. The end of rote studying and the end of resentment. The end of wondering whether a teacher "hates" you. (He doesn't.)

I issue these challenges because, I hope, they will resonate with the students who most need to embrace them. Not everyone can be Student Z in the examples above. But it's easy -- and worthwhile -- not to be Students W, X, and Y.

Students who are truly dying to get into to selective colleges will meet with far greater success if they are enthusiastic, graceful, and gracious than they will if they maintain the illusion that grades -- and only grades -- matter above all else. Students should imagine what it will be like for their recommendation letters to include words like "curious," "mature," "good-natured," and "perceptive" rather than words like "diligent," "ambitious," or, worst of all, "capable."

They should imagine how much more powerful those words are than some lifeless number, no matter how high it is.