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A close-up of the opening of a generic typed letter of recommendation, with a pencil lying on top.

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I have always urged high school seniors and their parents to live in the moment, to enjoy the senior year and even the college admissions process. Rather than worry about the big game against the archrival, enjoy being part of a rivalry—it’s special. Rather than worrying about grades, enjoy your classes and classmates. Rather than worrying about college admission, enjoy the chance to make decisions about your future.

That’s easier said than done. Human beings seem programmed to focus on the future (or, once we reach a certain age, the past). A character in Thornton Wilder’s iconic American play Our Town asks if any humans realize what they are experiencing while living. The answer is that poets and saints might, to some extent. Most of us are neither poets nor saints.

I have been trying to live in the moment this fall as I go through my final college counseling season. I’m trying to be cognizant of some of my lasts as I experience them. One of those occurred last month.

Last month I wrote what I believe was the last college recommendation letter I will ever write. That’s hard to fathom. For nearly 40 years, each fall has been organized around and consumed by application deadlines and the need to write a recommendation for each of my high school seniors. I may not have enough distance to have perspective, but forgive me as I take a moment to reflect on the counselor recommendation letter.

When I was first hired as a college counselor, there was a lot of talk about “the letter,” as if it was the college admissions equivalent of a Talmudic text. The ability to write seemed more important than the ability to counsel kids properly. I have long been skeptical that my letters are read with anywhere near the time and care I devote to writing them, but I have always felt that the rec letter is my opportunity to make a case for a student.

That’s not always easy. I have never written a negative letter—that’s not my job. As our mothers might advise us, “If you can’t say something nice, say nothing.” But some letters are challenging to write. It’s hard to make chicken salad without chicken.

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

Every counselor has a personal regimen for getting recs done. I have always envied those who are able to get their letters done during the summer, but I’ve never been able to do it. Some counselors work on multiple letters at the same time, but I’ve focused on cranking one out at a time. Some of us get up early or stay up late to carve out the time and creative energy needed to write. There were plenty of Halloweens when I took my children trick-or-treating and returned home to write one last rec letter for Nov. 1.

I wish I were as disciplined and organized in other parts of my life as I was when writing my rec letters. In recent years I have tried to write one a day, and two years ago I wrote a recommendation letter every day for 40 days straight. That’s not quite on par with the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness, but it’s close.

Years ago, I received a phone call from the director of admissions at a large public university in the Southeast. One of my students with a very weak transcript had applied, but he said that my recommendation letter made him think he should give the student a chance. He closed the conversation by asking if I had ever considered becoming a creative writer.

That is not to say that rec letters are fiction, but they are an art form. The recommendation is part legal brief, laying out evidence and making the case for a student’s acceptance. It is part character sketch. And if the student’s transcript serves as primary text, the recommendation serves the same function as footnotes do in scholarly books, providing explanation and context.

There is an ongoing debate about how long recommendations should be. The consensus seems to be one page, but I’ve always had trouble being that succinct. Most of my letters run a page and a half. A counselor friend used to brag about all her letters being one page but then admitted that she had accomplished that only by using narrow margins and seven-point font.

I’ve also been too much of a dinosaur to adopt the bullet-point format for letters. What I have tried to do is front-load my letters so that the essence of the letter is in the opening paragraph, with the rest of the letter providing support for the main thesis. (By the way, given the recent tragedy in Lewiston, Me., and the larger issue of gun violence, I wonder if we should retire the term “bullet point.” If that makes me woke—a term I hate and also want to retire—I can live with that.)

Recommendation letters have a lot in common with advertising. In both cases your goal is making the strongest claim possible without compromising the truth or your integrity. Language is important, because I have always believed that recommendations are read negatively. If you don’t say something, it’s probably because you can’t.

If you mention that a student is “diligent,” is that a sign that the student is less than brilliant? I remember hearing a counselor say that a college reported that two of her students weren’t admitted because she described them as “reserved.” That’s unfortunate and wrong, reflecting a conscious or unconscious bias against introverts.

Recommendation writing offers the opportunity for the creative turn of phrase. Many years ago, a professor at Lehigh University developed what he termed the Lexicon of Inconspicuously Ambiguous Recommendations (yes, the acronym is LIAR).

The lexicon was oriented toward job recommendations rather than college recommendations, and his point was that what you don’t say may be more meaningful than what you say. If you say, “You will be fortunate to get this person to work for you,” is the important missing information that “no one else has been able to get them to work”?

The college admissions equivalent might be “I would place this student in a class by himself.” Is that figurative or literal? A signal that the student deserves high praise or that the student deserves solitary confinement?

In the past year or so, there have been some suggestions that the college recommendation is outdated. Certainly, it is a convention that had its origins a century ago at a time when college admission was neither particularly selective nor concerned with equity. At a time when we recognize that not every applicant has the benefit of a counselor who knows them or has the time to write thoughtful letters, is it time to rethink the recommendation letter as an application staple?

At the same time, rec letters may become more important in a landscape where grade inflation calls transcripts into question and standardized test scores are optional. But the notion of needing a recommendation letter makes applying to college seem like applying to a private club. Whatever the future of recommendations, we need to get away from that.

I always found great satisfaction in finishing a letter and feeling like I had captured my students and told their stories. Now, having finished a run of close to 2,000 recommendations over the course of my career, I feel similar satisfaction. Or maybe just relief.

Jim Jump recently semiretired after 33 years as the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, Va. He previously served as an admissions officer, philosophy instructor and women’s basketball coach at the college level and is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

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