Ethical College Admissions: Rethinking the Rec Letter

Jim Jump wonders if they are serving applicants and colleges as they should.

April 23, 2018
 
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A number of years ago, the mother of one of my seniors stopped by after returning from a college trip. She reported that the admissions officer at one Ivy League university had stated during the information session that there were four words they looked for when reading recommendations. Handing me a piece of paper, she told me, “I wrote them down for you.”

I started to respond that what they were looking for were qualities, not words, and that I was pretty sure “literal” was not on the list, but recognized that a discussion would be a waste of everyone’s time and thanked her.

I thought about that interaction last week after doing a session, “Rethinking Recommendations,” at the Potomac and Chesapeake Association for College Admission Counseling conference.

The conference took place in Dover, Del., the town I lived in for the first nine years of my life. That was more than 50 years ago, and Dover has changed in ways both good and bad in the interim. I drove around town and saw the house I used to live in and the elementary school I attended, and I realized that I have dreamed about Dover numerous times through the years.

In addition to being Delaware’s capital and a Nascar stop, Dover is responsible for three products that have influenced American society in monumental ways. The first is Jell-O, which has been manufactured in Dover since the 1960s. The other two were produced by the International Latex Corporation, the company where my father worked. One was the spacesuit worn by the Apollo astronauts, and the other was the Playtex Living Bra. When I lived in Dover, I understood the cultural significance of only two of the three.

The conference session on rethinking recommendations was not originally designed in response to colleges using committee-based evaluation as a way to read more applications without increasing staff. But as more admissions offices adopt the practice, it forces secondary school counselors to rethink how they write recommendation letters. When student applications are being read/skimmed in four to seven minutes, the finely crafted prose that independent schools used to call “The Letter” may be outdated and counterproductive.

The prevailing wisdom has always been that recommendation letters should be kept to one page. Readers of this column will immediately recognize that brevity is a challenge for some of us. A counseling friend brags about her single-page letters, something she accomplishes through using seven-point font. I have tried to front-load my letters, laying out the argument in the opening paragraph for those admission officers who won’t read the entire letter carefully.

The newest and most popular technique being used by a number of counselors is the bullet-point letter, where information is conveyed in short bursts rather than written as a complete narrative.

The move to bullet points makes me aware of how cutting-edge my predecessor was. His recommendations were two to three sentences, one of which was either “recommended” or “highly recommended.” The number of exclamation points provided nuance to distinguish one student from another. (By the way, is anyone else surprised that there hasn’t been a call to re-name “bullet points” in light of the movement to lessen gun violence?)

But do all of us need to rethink more than just the formatting of recommendation letters? I have always thought that the letter of recommendation is part legal brief, laying out evidence and making the case for a student. It is part character sketch, bringing the application and transcript to life. And if we think of a student’s transcript as primary text, then the rec letter serves the function that footnotes do in scholarly books, providing context and explanation for a grade, class, teacher or life circumstances relevant in understanding the student’s journey.

In his book The Call of Stories, the psychiatrist Robert Coles says that each person has a unique story and that the purpose of psychiatry is to discern that story. Along similar lines, the purpose of the rec letter is to tell the student’s story. There is the story of accomplishment, the story of growth, the story of adversity overcome and the story of potential (sometime unrealized). Obviously some of those are easier to tell than others.

But how do you tell each student’s story when you have ridiculous counseling loads that prevent you from getting to know your students, and how do you tell the story when it’s only being read for seconds as part of the committee-based read? Will we someday think about recommendation tweets rather than recommendation letters?

During our session a counselor in the audience commented that a college had told her that two of her students weren’t admitted because she described them as “reserved.” If it is true that there are certain words that admission officers want to see in recommendations, is it also the case that there are certain words that can unintentionally be red flags?

I have always contended that recommendations are read negatively, that if you don’t say something it must be because you can’t. If you highlight that a student is “diligent,” it may be read as evidence that the student lacks ability. But what’s wrong with being reserved?

A panelist who is a respected admissions dean commented that he doesn’t believe most admission officers would be concerned by that word or description. He does wonder, however, if colleges encourage certain types of student behavior and discourage other behavior by what they market.

When colleges highlight students who have multiple majors, are in six organizations, and have started their own businesses, does that promote a certain set of values and devalue those who bring different strengths to the table? In her book Quiet, Susan Cain argues persuasively that the leadership skills of those who are introverted are undervalued in our society.

That leads to a broader question. Do we need to rethink not only recommendations but other conventions of the college admission process? The recommendation letter came into vogue nearly a century ago, at the same time the nation’s elite colleges moved from looking to admit the best students to admitting the best graduates.

In his history of college admissions at Harvard, Yale and Princeton Universities, the sociologist Jerome Karabel identified what he calls the “Iron Law of Admission,” i.e., colleges abandon a particular process once it stops producing the desired results. In the 1920s the result was too many Jewish students, and the change was a process that introduced concepts like “character” and “leadership” and factors like extracurricular activities, the personal essay and letters of recommendation.

All of those have become staples of the selective college process. But, just like standardized tests, do they serve students and colleges as well as they once did? Is it time to rethink what we measure and what we value?

Bio

Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, Va. He has been at St. Christopher’s since 1990 and was previously an admissions officer, women’s basketball coach and philosophy professor at the college level. Jim is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

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