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Keeping Up With The Recommendations

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Back in 2009, when I considered going to graduate school to become a school counselor after more than two decades as a newspaper editor, I did informational interviews.

With the help of a friend in the school system, I reached out to a couple of high school counselors and asked them what they liked and didn’t like about the job, so I could get a clearer, more focused perspective.

Both talked to me about the relentless amount of paperwork for college-bound seniors.

Including recommendation letters.

As they discussed challenges with this part of their work, I remember thinking my current job already required…

…interviewing

…writing

and editing on deadline.

Fun fact:
Chuck is in The Guinness Book Of World Records under, “Most Extensive MS Word Toolbar.”

I could handle it, I decided. My instincts proved right.

Nearing the finish of my 12th season of writing recommendations, I’ve written more than 500 letters for aspiring college students.

Nevertheless, I understand why this task came to mind when the veterans described fatigue factors of being a school counselor (not a “guidance counselor” – learn more here.)

Here’s the good, the bad and the ugly of Letters of Recommendation.

Let’s go in reverse order:


The ugly? Universities requiring the rec letter.

At my school, about four dozen seniors (roughly half my senior caseload) applied to such institutions this fall.

Most are private. But some are public universities that do not require letters for students within their state, but do for students outside their state.

It’s the “require” part that bugs me.

I enjoy getting to know my seniors and touting them to the schools they’re pursuing.

I just wish doing so was an option and not a requirement.

I have a caseload of more than 400 students. (Some years, when we have five counselors rather than six as we currently have, my caseload rises above 500.) Writing rec letters is a small part of my job, but it takes an outsized proportion of time. I interview a student for a half-hour to 45 minutes.

Put another way, I’ve spent more than 33 hours during the school day between early September and early November doing these interviews. That’s time I can’t spend on other priorities.

In addition, it takes me an hour to write a letter using a template I created. There’s rarely a time when letter writing can be done at school. So, as my teacher colleagues often have to do with grading homework or creating lesson plans, I’m writing these letters at home, typically on evenings and weekends. (If anyone wondered why I disappeared from tnocs.com or the mothership between mid-September and early November? Now you know.)

It could be worse. When I started more than a decade ago, the public universities in my state required letters as well. At least that practice ceased.


The bad? Every year, there’s that senior who doesn’t know my name.

For some reason, a significant number thinks my last name is “Smalls.”

This becomes significant when they enter my email address wrongly in the Common Application or other college admissions documents. I never receive the prompt because it goes to a nonexistent “csmalls” in my school system.

After years of panicked students sending emails saying, “Why haven’t you done my Common App?” and my replying “I didn’t know you were on the Common App!” I began telling 9th graders on up, that if they don’t commit “Mr. Small” to memory, they’re going to regret it at college admissions time.

This may have worked. I have yet to get a panicked “Mr. Smalls” email this year.

We’ll see.

The other common frustration is with the student who fills out our packet of reflective prompts (some schools call it a “brag sheet”) with single-word or one-sentence replies. We became much clearer with our seniors about being thorough. If they don’t promote themselves, how can anyone else do so?


Now for the good. And there’s so much of it.

I feel blessed to hear of students doing amazing research, spending innumerable hours volunteering in our community, and putting together impressive career and academic resumes that, quite frankly, would have left mine in the dust.

I try to pull out some thoughtful reflections on their experience so colleges see beyond the resume to the really cool young adult who created it. In our interviews, I try to capture not just their activities but their personalities. I take the time to read back to them direct quotes that capture my attention, hoping they will do the same for the admissions representative.

I end each student interview with “What have we not gone over that you want to make sure I include in a rec letter?” Sometimes, the student will provide an obvious restatement from the packet or their resume. But often this question sends our interview in an entirely different direction.

It’s then that I get excited about the nugget of gold I’ll be able to tuck into the letter.

On the college’s end, I’m sure the template I use can frustrate someone who gets more than one of these a year from me. The first and last sentence are literally, except for the student’s name and an adjective or two, the same. But that’s just a time-saver that allows me to complete dozens of these in a two-month time frame.

It’s the bullet points in between where the meal is.

And that meal will be only as delicious as the ingredients the students and I provide.

Sometimes, it’s filet mignon.

A senior last year completely bowled me over.

She took perhaps the most anodyne of our prompts – “What advice would you give an incoming high school freshman?”

She said she would encourage them to look at political or societal events to determine “how history got us here:”

“Can you connect the Enlightenment to Kim Kardashian?”

Since she set up that challenge, I asked her to do that – and she did, explaining the Enlightenment’s rationality, development of technology and prevalence of a Protestant work ethic before contrasting it with a tech-era mogul known for celebrity who promotes her brand nonstop. Hearing her connect the dots blew my mind.

“If you continuously practice making a subject interesting, you will find everything to be fascinating,”

I knew I was going to use that anecdote in her recommendation letter.

And sure enough, she got into the prestigious private university she pursued.

I am positive her myriad accomplishments, including being a National Merit Scholar, had a lot to do with that.

But I can’t help thinking Kim K. might have helped just a smidge.

“And also: just a smidge of encouragement from a certain Grand Master School Counselor.”

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9

Chuck Small

Journalist-turned-high school counselor. Happily ensconced in Raleigh, N.C., with hubby of 30 years (8 legal).

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Phylum of Alexandria
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November 28, 2022 8:29 am

Lovely! That is not smalls feat you commit yourself to every year.

I must confess I feel a smidge guilty about leaving academia for the federal workforce, since I benefitted from my mentors writing letters of recommendation for me, but I didn’t stick around to do my part on the giving end. Well, I did one at least. Better than nothing?

Phylum of Alexandria
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November 28, 2022 5:21 pm

Gah, I ruined my own joke. It was supposed to read “That is no smalls feat…”

Two typos a clever joke does not make.

mt58
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mt58
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November 28, 2022 7:23 pm
Reply to  cstolliver

I need to make this more obvious, but here is how to edit a comment:

edit.png
Phylum of Alexandria
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November 28, 2022 7:37 pm
Reply to  mt58

I only see that icon for a limited time. It’s not visible for my first or second comments. But…

Edit: it’s available for this one.

Last edited 1 month ago by Phylum of Alexandria
Virgindog
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November 28, 2022 1:17 pm

I had no idea writing recommendation letters was such a big part of the job. Thank you for taking it so seriously. I’m sure it makes a huge difference in a lot of lives.

dutchg8r
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dutchg8r
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November 28, 2022 1:23 pm

Awww, Chuck, this was lovely. 🙂

I hope at least a few kids express their gratitude for your assistance each year. You and they might think you’re just doing your job, but you are taking the time to care about them and their futures, and it’s a lovely gift you are providing them. If not enough do thank you, I will say a great big thank you on their behalf.

Dance Fever
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November 28, 2022 4:06 pm

Chuck. Spot on about the recommendations aspect of being a senior.
We have two wonderful counselors who specifically help the seniors with this task and I hope you don’t mind my giving them a copy of this post.
Thanks for all you do !

mt58
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mt58
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November 28, 2022 7:22 pm
Reply to  cstolliver

I’m a total amateur, and I fret quite a bit about all of it.

Thanks, Chuck, and thanks to all for your patience, as I learn by doing.

LinkCrawford
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December 5, 2022 8:57 am
Reply to  mt58

Atta editor!

cappiethedog
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November 28, 2022 10:20 pm

I didn’t know there were six Kardashians.

Actual guidance counselor comment in middle school: “How do you flunk art?”

Enlightenment to Kim Kardashian: It’s good to know that the kids are alright.

mt58
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November 29, 2022 12:31 am
Reply to  cappiethedog

Cappie, this is off topic, but I was curious: I saw the trailer and wondered: are you looking forward to seeing The Fabelmans?

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=D1G2iLSzOe8

cappiethedog
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November 29, 2022 7:43 pm
Reply to  mt58

Ooh. A personal film. I think this film means something to him. It looks like a passion project.

Finally, an original screenplay.

I get E.T. vibes because the lead actor Gabriel LaBelle is a virtual unknown. The actor who plays his sister, Julia Butters, is a scene-stealer; she was in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, holding her own against Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s going to be great. I mean, Judd Hirsch is in it. Hirsch is so underrated.

Jaws is great. I finally figured out what to do with it. Forget the sequels; it’s the knock-offs that are interesting.

Robert Shaw almost looks like he wandered in from another movie. Robert Dreyfuss’ character acknowledges this, speaking in a pirate voice out of exasperation at the way he’s treated like a subordinate. It normalizes the larger-than-life aspect of Quint. I used to find Shaw distracting, as if Mel Brooks was directing him.

I finally saw the Director’s Cut of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I don’t recall him leaving earth in the original and Special Edition versions. I’m aiming for brevity. It’s hard to encapsulate because Francois Truffaut’s presence acts as a mediating force; he’s a humanist. Without Truffaut, the army would be at war with the aliens. Spielberg knew what he was doing. Without Truffaut, you have War of the Worlds.

Aaron3000
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November 29, 2022 8:48 pm
Reply to  cappiethedog

I think they’re kloning Kardashians in a secret lab somewhere. Sometimes it seems like there are way more than six.

lovethisconcept
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November 29, 2022 10:28 am

I was fortunate, in that as a member of faculty, I was only asked to write recommendation letters for students that I knew well. They weren’t usually for college entrance purposes, but for various organizations, awards, scholarships, etc. They still weren’t easy, but I didn’t have to do an interview, as I usually knew them fairly well personally. Also, they came at different times throughout the year. The thought of writing 48 of them in a two month period is the stuff of nightmares. Congratulations to you for pulling it off.

Last edited 1 month ago by lovethisconcept
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