Writing College Recommendations

You could be sued!  Recruiters from Ivy League schools like Stanford and Harvard are so paranoid about being sued that they won’t allow themselves to be quoted or filmed. Nick Martin talks about this in one of his  Winnipeg Free Press blog posts.  According to Martin recruiters have been sued by parents whose children were rejected by their college, so recruiters refuse to have anything they say recorded. But Martin says it is not only recruiters that are being sued.  Teachers who write recommendation letters can be as well……..

One recruiter had earlier told the crowd anecdotally that reference letters from Canadians contain far less hyperbole than those U.S. applicants submit from their teachers………because Canadian high school teachers don’t really worry about students and their parents suing them if they don’t get into an Ivy League school — American teachers praise the kids to the heavens, lest their letter of reference come back to bite them and be cited in a lawsuit as the reason the Ivy League school turned them down.

When I was teaching high school in Hong Kong I wrote dozens of recommendation letters every year for my senior students who were applying to North American universities. It was time-consuming. Before I wrote my first batch I asked for advice from colleagues who had been doing recommendation letters for years.  I knew I needed to be forthright and truthful but I also wanted to showcase my students in the best light to improve their chances for admission. After all they had asked me to serve as their reference because they thought I would write positive things. Some colleges and universities provided guidelines and questions to answer, while others gave the teacher carte blanche to write what they wanted about students. 

Perhaps because I was not unlike the other Canadian teachers Martin describes in his article, I thought that if I didn’t at least mention one or two of my students’ weaknesses or challenges the university might dismiss my letter as ‘meaningless’ and that wouldn’t help my student applicants either.  So I tried to be both honest and generous and write the letters in a way that didn’t compromise my integrity. 

In the months when my students were in the thick of college applications writing their recommendation letters took me almost as much time as teaching another course.  I was an English teacher and because my students were applying to North American schools from abroad frequently the college required a reference from an English teacher, so the students needed me to help them out.

I admit I never thought about being sued. In fact I was impressed with how appreciative the majority of my students and their parents were when I’d consent to do a recommendation. I was almost always thanked and recognized for my efforts. It is a wonder any American teachers consent to do recommendations with the threat of a law suit hanging over their head. 

After a couple of years I found a sort of rhythm and pattern for writing recommendation letters and my speed picked up. I was always happy when a student was accepted into a school for which I’d written a recommendation letter. I felt  like I’d played a small part in their success.

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