I am asked to write several letters of recommendation each semester, usually by students who have taken one of my classes or have been part of my summer service program. Truthfully, I dread writing them. How can I make the letter compelling without using too many superlatives? How do I gently highlight the student’s “growth edges” as one of their strengths?
I don’t like reading them much, either. As a director of a graduate program, I read them for red flags during the application process. Almost all the time, the letter writer gushes about the prospective student’s leadership skills and successes. Sure, there is valuable information in there, but more often, the letter confirms what we can already see in other parts of the application.
Yet I did not have any idea how much worse the recommendation letter process could be until I met … Naviance.
As my oldest daughter is applying to colleges, I am basically taking a crash course in the college admissions process. And it is so complicated!
Most colleges on her list require one letter of recommendation from a teacher and one letter from her guidance counselor. To facilitate this process, the school uses Naviance, which is a portal for students to use to request these letters. But it’s even more than that. It’s a place to see if your dream college is a “reach” or “match” or a “safety” school, based your ACT/SAT scores and your grade point average. My daughter finds this dispiriting, at best, but I suppose it’s a helpful reality check for some students.
It’s a place to search for scholarships, again drawing on your standardized test scores and GPA, but also your demonstrated interests and successes (e.g., athletics, leadership positions, starting companies, saving endangered species, etc.).
If you spend enough time on Naviance, you start to realize that there are many more choices of colleges and many more scholarships than you would have found with your own Google search, and it does provide useful suggestions and guidance.
My daughter’s high school uses Naviance to organize the recommendation letter process, and it makes a lot of sense. Lili fills out her “brag sheet”; I fill out our “parent brag sheet” so that her teachers and counselor get to know the real Lili and they can write a letter that a college admissions officer will read and be convinced to give Lili a chance.
This may be the most meaningful letter of recommendation I have ever written: one to convince someone else to write a letter that will help Lili get into her dream schools. How do I that well? Do I write about her as a sensitive child, shy and artistic? Do I write about how she never really fit in at her hippie school in the woods and suffered a soul-crushing loss of friendship when she started public high school? Do I write about how she is helping to raise her little sister because her parents are frankly too old and tired to do it well on our own? Do I try to convince her teacher that she is smarter and more capable than her occasional B grade indicates? Do I argue that she is worthy of a strong counselor letter when she hasn’t started a club, succeeded in sports or spent summers in academic enrichment camps? And how do I highlight her passion and commitment for social justice without sounding cliché?
As her counselor writes about her, one of roughly 250 students he advises, how do we convince him that she is worthy of a strong letter of support? And is that what the parent brag sheet is for, anyway?
The truth is I think my daughter is amazing. No surprise there. I think she deserves a place at her dream school. But asking parents to brag about their kids, and using a sorting system like Naviance to request these letters, means that we are all complicit in a system that rewards those who stand out, who seek recognition, instead of one that supports all students and celebrates their potential.
The next time I am asked to write a letter, I think I’ll ask my student for a story instead of a brag sheet. A story that highlights their abilities, yes, but one that acknowledges their own growth edges. After all, students are applying for opportunities to grow, and our letters should ultimately support that growth, instead of suggesting that they are worthy only because of what they have already done.
Let’s hope my brag sheet convinces Lili’s teacher and counselor to do the same.