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Why I write college recommendation letters

This past week I submitted my first college recommendations this school year for students attempting to gain early admission to colleges they consider their “first choice.”

And many postsecondary institutions really comb those recommendations to glean a perspective on students that just cannot be ascertained from a transcript or score report. These colleges are trying to determine character, compassion, willingness to serve, and be part of a community.

Every year, I look back in my files to see the number of recommendations that I have written for students over the years and if you are a teacher of juniors in a core course like I am, that number can be quite large.

There are hundreds — Ivy League, elite liberal arts, large out-of-state public institutions, military academies, junior colleges, community colleges, scholarships, and even my alma mater, Wake Forest. And each is the most important.

It’s rather neat to be asked by someone to vouch for his/her accomplishments and character because your opinion and insight are valued.

If you do not know what a recommendation entails go and look at a college’s website under the “Admissions” tab and get an idea of what a college may ask in a recommendation. Many times it is asking for the “intangibles” that schools so look for in a student who will graduate in four years and “rep” the school for years to come whether through success in career or personal acclaim. There are studies that talk about how much more a school benefits from successful alumni who continue to associate themselves with their alma mater.

I know a student who went to the local community college (Forsyth Tech) and took the university transfer track. After two years, he transferred to UNC-Chapel Hill as a junior. He then went to UNC-Chapel Hill law school. He thrives. He proudly displays all of his degrees. They all were parts of his success. I am proud to have vouched for him in that process, first to get a scholarship to help pay for Forsyth Tech and then secondly to write a rec for the transfer application.

I am very aware that colleges want an honest opinion of the student and with each recommendation my reputation is attached. If I feel that I cannot write a superior recommendation based on experiences in class or school that would reflect negatively on the student, then I will tell the student that is the case. Then the student has a choice to go to someone else.

But for the student who truly has a plan and a desire to go somewhere and asks me to help him/her get there because he/she feels my words can be of benefit and I can provide a positive recommendation, then I do it.

It’s a privilege when someone makes a decision about where he/she wants to go and humbly asks you to help with the journey. Your words mean something to them. Your influence has always meant something to them.

I have 20 student recs to complete in the next week. It’s like writing a personal essay for each student. That can seem like a lot of writing.

And I will do every one of them with one specific request on my part — give me at least a couple of weeks to complete if possible.

There are two maps in my school classroom (US and world) that I often look at and remember all of the schools and places my former students have gone to school, to intern, to serve, etc., that I may have written a recommendation for.

And I am getting on in years so together we have covered a lot of states and a few countries.

I was asked to be part of a lot of journeys. And most of those journeys are still being explored.

That’s humbling.

Stuart Egan

Stuart Egan is an English teacher at West Forsyth High School in Winston Salem, North Carolina.