Bryn Mawr, Pa. — Writing a letter of recommendation is a labor of love, except when it’s not. Sometimes the process is lonely and painful, like taking a final exam in the dentist’s chair.
Either way, writing dozens of recommendations each year is a draining, time-consuming chore. But what if you could just use bullet points to describe an applicant’s talents instead of, you know, stringing together all those paragraphs?
On Monday college counselors pondered that question here at the annual conference of the Association of College Counselors in Independent Schools. During a session on writing recommendations “in the era of ‘less is more,’” several counselors said they believe that admissions officers are spending less and less time reading recommendations, or, at least, reading them carefully. In this age of application inflation, there isn’t enough time for most admissions staffs to do everything exactly as they did a decade ago. These days, some recommendations are read and re-read; others, to put it kindly, are skimmed with one eye.
Given the demands on the modern admissions office, some counselors said they strive to write no more than one page (some colleges even request this). Brevity isn’t always easy, however. “Some kids deserve more than a page,” one counselor said. Moreover, writing a shorter letter is known to take more time than writing a longer one, an observation that’s been attributed to Blaise Pascal, among many others.
Today’s recommendations tend to cut to the chase. Several counselors said they now strive, like journalists do, to write a compelling opening. “There’s more pressure about what the first paragraph looks like,” one counselor said. The modern recommendation, said another, should lack “the platitudes or the flowery language” of yore. In: concrete details and telling anecdotes. Out: epic poems.
Still, there’s power in elaboration. One counselor, who used to work in admissions, recalled reading long, long recommendations, written in 10-point type, that a particular counselor would compose: “I wanted to take every kid he wrote about.” What made them so good? “He knew each kid.”
If your counselor knows you well, and is capable of writing a long, detailed letter on your behalf, you’re a luckier kid than most. By all means, these ruminations on the appropriate length of recommendations do not reflect the most pressing problems in American high schools.
Nonetheless, this fascinating discussion spoke to a larger concern within the college-counseling field. Namely, that something important—something personal—has been lost in today’s high-volume, data-driven admissions process.
In the end, the counselors here unanimously agreed they could never imagine reducing their recommendations to mere bullet points (one shivered, visibly, at the thought). What I heard in all this was an echo of an even bigger question that has to do with our attention spans and our belief in subjective evaluations: Is there still room for a winding narrative in this fast and ever-tweeting world?