Writing a College Recommendation
1 Nov 2016

Here is some straight-talk advice I recently received from a college admissions representative; it echoes other things I hear constantly at conferences.

He said that college admissions officers don’t want any information from teachers regarding general things about an applicant, only things––in depth, with examples––related to the class(es) a student has taken from a teacher and, if applicable, a coach or club advisor relationship.

College admissions officers love anecdotes and a teacher’s characterization and representation of a student’s salient academic abilities: “He writes elegant, succinct analytical papers” or “He manages to ask searching questions every day that stump the class and keep us arguing through lunch.”

If a teacher can say that Applicant X is the “best [something] I’ve encountered in my thirty years of teaching,” that is ideal.

One more thing, English professors (or any other professors) are no longer on admissions committees. So delving in too deeply into any particular academic study will probably be lost on the applicant’s reader.

I recently wrote the following recommendation. It may serve as an example of what college admissions officers are looking for.

A student recommendation

He sits across from me at the Harkness table, eyes wide-open, genial expression on his face, pencil in hand, on the ready. I have the impression that David[1] never misses anything that is said in my classroom. His mind is like a trap for information gathering. And he is the “go-to” guy when everyone else is stumped. No one has a greater store of collateral resources to share than David (he’s “encyclopedic” in terms of literary references and allusions to myth, classics, biblical narrative, Shakespeare). I have been well aware of his prolific, catholic reading habit since the beginning of his freshman year (I always see him reading in the hallways). There is no better testament to his love of learning than this quiet practice (no wonder that he won both the Harvard Prize––for top scholar––and the Brown Book award at the end of his junior year). That he has been able to sustain it throughout these years on top of his “daunting” elective course load also speaks to his ability to manage his discretionary time with consummate self-discipline and skill. David has one of the most scholarly dispositions I have seen in over forty years of teaching.

But he’s not an “egg head.” I remember him in his freshman year as starting sweeper in 3rd soccer, the last man back. Flawless. We were especially impressed by his judgment, equanimity and positional sense. Nothing got passed him. Tall, lean, a little gangly for his age, he did not seem very athletic to us at first. He proved us wrong: he became the keystone of the defense.

David and I have shared a number of venues over the years, from 9th grade English and soccer to English electives in Faulkner and Shakespeare in his junior and senior years, respectively. He attended all my review sessions before taking the AP English Literature & Composition exam. He will be taking my Inquiry course entitled “Pathways to Justice” this spring. Many descriptors come to mind when I think of David: mature, informed, self-assured, inquisitive, insightful, attentive, invested, enthusiastic, logical, independent, mild-mannered.

As a writer, David is mindful of his reader. His paper is the one you save for last as a reward or the first because you can’t defer gratification. His prose provides a clear critical framework for discussion, moving the reader effectively from the point of entry to the finish. Adhering to the principles of conventional grammatical literacy, he integrates judiciously gathered textual evidence and engages his reader by discussing things of significance. His prose is crisp and taut: “Outliers such as Joe Christmas threaten to unravel the tightly wound and cherished belief in social hierarchy. To preserve the status quo, society sacrifices misfits, pruning the individuals it views as dangerous.”

David’s investment in my courses has also been made manifest by his contributions during class discussion, work that is often exceptionally reflective and insightful. David is particularly skilled at recognizing literary nuance, tone and scribal design. Everything he produces is a demonstration of close, careful listening, attentiveness to text, and unhurried thinking. He has been instrumental in effecting cohesive discourse during class.

I have heard such positive things about David beyond the scope of my direct interactions with him: he revived the Model UN club; he invested himself in the history of Saragoza during a class trip he took to Spain; “miles ahead of others,” he led his AP US History class in the absence of his teacher; he has taught younger boys in debate; outside of school, he has studied Greek with a tutor for five years; he took four AP exams in four consecutive days (he has taken a total of eight).

I endorse David’s candidacy wholeheartedly and with the greatest enthusiasm. Articulate, scholarly, and insightful, he has the intellect, verbal dexterity, work ethic, and the literary resources to succeed in the most demanding English curriculum. Courteous, appreciative, actively engaged, and responsible, he will delight those who continue to broaden his horizons. He is a very talented humanities student.

[1] The actual student’s name has been changed.


Dr. Jeffrey Fast

Dr. Jeffrey Fast has been a teacher and administrator in America’s leading independent schools for almost 40 years. After graduating from Oberlin College, he served in the Peace Corps in the Philippines teaching English at both secondary and collegiate levels. He received his MA in English Literature fromYork University in Toronto, then moved on to receive his PhD from the Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham, England. Upon his return to America, he took on both teaching and administrative positions at The Webb Schools in California, serving for 15 years as English department head, Dean of Students, Director of Curriculum, and Director of the Summer Studies Program. He also taught English to Japanese students at The Toin Gakuen School outside Yokohama in one of his sabbaticals. After Webb, Dr. Fast moved to Boston, and took on teaching and administrative positions at Belmont Hill School, serving as English department head, Director of Curriculum, and Form Head for the past 22 years. He currently teaches sections of 9th grade English, as well as several advanced English electives — Shakespeare, Faulkner and the Southern Tradition, Search For Faith, Literature of Social Reflection.

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