Writing recommendation letters is like strength training. It’s short bursts of intense effort, but the results can greatly change the way a person is perceived.
That’s what the majority of my time is spent on these days at work. It’s something that has become a passion of mine; it’s my artistic outlet within the bounds of my not-so-creative job.
When I write one, I’m writing a song. I have a theme and I test each literary chord, typing furiously, backspacing even faster, and then finally hitting just the right note. It fits, it flows… it sings to me.
I always write them with the assumption that the reader has no interest in it; it’s my job to make my student not only stand out, but also to engage the reader long enough to form a lasting memory of my student. As a former admission counselor, I know what it’s like to read one.more.letter. They all run together, and it’s hard to keep each kid straight in your head when they’re all stellar, self-motivated, kind, respectful, and courteous.
To help me, I turn to Charlie, Johnny, and good ole Dave. A good fiction writer like Charles Dickens makes you forget that you’re reading; the gnawing hunger in your stomach is because you’re a half-starved child in London, not because you had to skip lunch for a work meeting that day. A good poet like John Donne uses words as espresso shots of emotion and symbolism. Short, powerful, and moving. And, finally… Dave Barry makes you laugh at the most normal, everyday events in life. The annoying car who keeps his blinker light on for eight miles becomes humorous as you remember Barry’s latest diatribe.
Dicken’s Great Expectations gave me my first experience with a literary hook… I remember holding that novel as an eighth-grader, intimidated with its weight and small font, and glaring at my mother for making me read it over spring break. (Mom has always known what was best for me).
Dicken’s hooks inspire me to begin my letters in a way that make the reader sit up in their chair and take notice, and to wonder what’s coming next.
Five minutes ago, Joe Schmoe left my office, dressed in a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle costume. It’s homecoming week, which means seniors rarely darken my door. They’d rather focus on dress up days and pep rallies, not college applications. So when Joe Schmoe walked in covered in a green jumpsuit and with a purple ribbon tied around his head, I was amused, but not surprised; his drop-in meetings with me are like death and taxes.
John Donne is my other guru. No, I don’t write in verse- other than a particularly trying graduate school assignment, I haven’t touched the medium since high school- but his wordplay is exquisite. To take something as everyday and common as a flea and to make it first vessel of passion, and then a symbol of unrequited love… Swoon. I think of Donne as I write examples of a student’s daily habits and small snippets of conversation I have with them- and drawing from it characteristics that make them an asset to a university.
[I have a really good example of this, but the student is still enrolled in my school so I’m not going to post an excerpt from it. Here’s one from a few years ago kinda displays what I’m talking about]
This young man is the salt needed to flavor a college campus. John Doe’s unassuming, quiet nature enables those of varying personalities- introverted and extroverted alike- to feel comfortable and perform at their best.
Lastly, I have Dave Barry sitting on my shoulder as I write about 90% of my letters. I try to have a humorous aftertaste in my writing- nothing necessarily blatant… just enough to leave a faint smile on the reader’s face when they are done. When a scholarship committee is able to smile and remember a humorous observation involving a potential student, they’re more likely to give them money. People who make other people frown don’t get free money. Simple as that. Finding the humor in every day life is something I strive for in my life, not just my recommendation letters.
By May 2016, I will have written close to 150 recommendation letters over the four years I’ve been at the school. They usually take between 1-4 hours; rarely completed in one sitting, and often spanning a week or more. Now that Gracie is sleeping more consistently, I’m kept awake trying this phrase or that phrase in my head, and hoping to catch hold of an idea long enough to get it on paper.
It’s a love-hate relationship, I’ll admit. Trying to fit a complete picture of a person’s character, hopes, and dreams into a single page is something I have yet to master. There’s a lot of prayer that goes into each one, especially when I know how much is riding on a scholarship or admittance. Being able to step back and look at the big picture, like with writing this post, is helpful when all I can see is a blinking cursor and a deadline.
Time to pick up the weights and get back to work.