Ethical College Admissions: Rectober

Writing letters of recommendation is a tough but essential part of the job, writes Jim Jump.

October 21, 2019
 
Istockphoto.com/Petro Bevz

Back in my admission days, there were many Sunday mornings during the fall when I would wake up and the first thing that would enter my consciousness was an internal voice uttering a four-letter expletive that rhymes with “grit,” followed by “I have to drive to New Jersey today.” My dismay was tied to the journey, not the destination.

This month I have had multiple déjà vu mornings where the first vocabulary word I use is that same four-letter expletive, with the rest of the thought having nothing to do with the Garden State Parkway or Turnpike. I greet the new day with the realization, “I have to write a recommendation today.” Welcome to Rectober.

“Rocktober” has long been a staple of classic rock radio stations, a monthlong promotional extravaganza featuring a different classic band each day of the month (if you live in St. Louis and listen to KSHE, today is AC/DC day). Apparently the term “Rocktober” is a licensed trademark of the Colorado Rockies baseball franchise to celebrate the team’s forays into the postseason. If that is the case, there is no Rocktober this October.

For college counselors this month is always Rectober (unless you are one of those college counselors who gets all your letters written during the summer, in which case you have my admiration and, at this particular moment, resentment). During this month, my entire life is focused around finding time to get the recommendations I need to write done. My children grew up with an intuitive understanding that what they called recommendation season was a time when Dad would be preoccupied, stressed and grumpy. There were many Halloween nights when trick-or-treat was followed by rec-and-treat as I finished up a letter for a Nov. 1 deadline.

Each of us has our own routine during Rectober. I am a one-at-a-time recommendation writer, completing one before turning to the next one, but I know other counselors who have three or four in various stages of completion. I try not to write more than one a day, and morning is my most productive writing time, but I have friends who can write several letters late at night. I am constantly doing triage, figuring out what needs to be done first to help my administrative assistant process the load most efficiently and sticking as much as possible to a first-come, first-served approach.

I wish I was as organized and disciplined in every part of my life as I am during Rectober. This year I feel like I have done my best job ever staying focused and forcing myself to keep to a rec regimen, and yet I feel one step away from being overwhelmed instead of merely whelmed. There is a distinct possibility that, despite my best efforts, Rectober will become Wrecktober.

So why is that? This is the time of year when we resemble the entertainers who used to appear on TV variety shows spinning plates on sticks to music, usually Aram Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance,” trying to keep multiple plates spinning without letting any topple and break. (If you are not old enough to remember plate spinners -- or variety shows -- my description probably explains all too well why both went out of fashion.) A college counseling friend recently commented that he has four daily priorities at this time of year -- meeting with visiting college representatives, meeting with students, writing recommendations and answering emails from parents -- and only time for three of the four.

It not just the quantity of work that complicates our jobs, but the work is also becoming more complex. Today processing a student’s application is anything but simple. We have application platforms in the Common Application and the Coalition Application that are supposed to make applying easy, but I see far more individualization in what colleges want from students and counselors, from submission of grades and test scores to how recommendations are composed and submitted.

We are also seeing the ongoing acceleration and compression of application deadlines. Early in my career, Feb. 1 was still a big application deadline. Today any of my students still trying to apply to college in February are way behind. For years I described the fall as a series of waves, with a deadline every couple of weeks. What used to be a three-month process is turning into a three-week sprint as more colleges go to earlier deadlines to spread out their reading time, with Nov. 1 resembling a tsunami. Just this fall I’ve noticed several places move what used to be Nov. 10 or Nov. 15 deadlines to Nov. 1. And, while we’re on the subject, I’d like to personally thank the College Board for deciding it’s a good idea to require students to register for Advanced Placement courses in the fall. Thank goodness counselors don’t have anything else on their (spinning) plates.

In the midst of Rectober, I try to maintain perspective about why recommendation letters are important. The recommendation provides context for a student’s application and transcript.

Recommendations are part footnote of the kind found in scholarly books where the footnote at the bottom of the page might be longer than the paragraph to which they refer. If the primary text is the transcript, then the recommendation is the footnote. The recommendation is also part character sketch, putting a human face on the application. Finally, the recommendation letter is part legal brief, making the case for admission.

Every recommendation tells a story. There is the story of accomplishment, the story of growth, the story of adversity overcome and the story of potential. Obviously some of those stories are easier to tell than others.

Today the great debate with regard to recommendations has to do with length and format. As a counselor, how do I say what needs to be said most efficiently at a time when it is not clear that admission officers are able to spend any time reading an applicant’s file carefully? The prevailing wisdom has always been to keep a rec letter to a single page, but that is a challenge for some of us who have been accused of being verbose. A close friend accomplishes the single page creatively by using seven-point font. I know a number of college counselors have moved to the bullet-point rec, and both schools and colleges seem to find that an improvement. I’m not quite there, but I definitely front-load my rec letters on the assumption that a clever conclusion might never get read.

A number of years ago, an admissions dean, having read my rec letter for a marginal candidate, asked if I had considered becoming a creative writer. I hope he meant by that writing recommendations is an art form rather than writing fiction. But that may be a fine line.

A while back Robert Thornton, a professor emeritus of economics at Lehigh University, developed what he called the Lexicon of Inconspicuously Ambiguous Recommendations, or LIAR, for recommendations for job applicants. One of his examples was the sentence “You will be very fortunate to get this person to work for you,” which could signify high praise or, reading between the lines, “They are lazy and haven’t worked for anyone else.”

Utilizing Thornton’s methodology for a college recommendation, is the statement “I would place him in a class by himself” figurative or literal, high praise or a warning? Welcome to Rectober.

Bio

Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Virginia. 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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