Sure, I’ll Write You A Recommendation…

Mr. Stephenson circa 1980s

In 11th grade, I needed three stellar recommendations that I could send off with my college applications. I felt confident that I would receive solid letters from two of my former English teachers, but then I was kinda stuck. There was no way I could ask any of my math teachers. I mean, I enjoyed Geometry, but I wasn’t necessarily good at it, and my Algebra teacher had retired.

Finally, I decided to ask my French teacher. I’d been in his class for two years. I was reasonably interested in the material (kinda); I liked him a lot (that should count for something, right?); I did my homework (sometimes); and I tried not to laugh too much. Yes, I decided, Monsieur Stephenson would be the perfect person to write me the outstanding recommendation that I was seeking.

You can imagine how shocked I was when he flat out said no.

“Think about your performance in my class,” he said. “Do you give 100% ? Do you take everything seriously? Do you show me that you want to be here? Do you do anything extra?” He pushed his hair back with the palm of his hand and sat up straight in his chair. “Think about the answers to those questions and then you’ll understand why I can’t write you a letter.”

He did not say he was sorry.

Fast forward 25 years, and here it is, recommendation letter writing season and my former students are returning to me, sometimes three semesters after I’ve had them as students. Like frantic homing pigeons who have been lost for an awful long time, they ask me to write them all kinds of letters –  to get into four year colleges, to enter the military, to give to potential employers – so I find myself thinking of Monsieur Stephenson a lot.

Mr. Stephenson in the 1980s

When Monsieur refused me that day, he gave me a big dose of reality. It is not enough to simply show up: A person must do more than make a good impression. Many of my former students think that because they liked me – that because I was kind to them and they passed my class – that they are entitled to strong letters of recommendation, but the best letters of recommendation are not just about “passing the course,” but about work ethic and character, growth and potential.

I am grateful to Monsieur Stephenson for refusing me, as I see his wisdom in holding up the mirror before me and having me take a good hard look at myself and my choices. I understand that his mediocre letter could have prevented me from getting into the college of my choice. Students need to think carefully and be direct in asking any potential letter writer if that person can produce a strong letter of recommendation on their behalf. If a student cannot find a professor or teacher, they may have to get creative and look to coaches, neighbors, religious leaders, perhaps someone who has witnessed their involvement in community service.

I learned more than just French from Monsieur Stevenson: I learned to be selective about whom I agree to write letters of recommendation. They are time consuming endeavors; labors of love.

Having said that, I am happy to write one for you – if you deserve it.

Anybody refuse to write you a letter of recommendation? How’d you take it?

9 responses to “Sure, I’ll Write You A Recommendation…

  1. Excellent blog, Renee. Every ninth grader should read this and keep it handy throughout their high school years!

  2. So true, so true. My daughter just went through the “asking for a letter of recommendation” period and it’s tough. You need to find and ask someone that knows you not just as a student, but as the person you are when you aren’t in their classroom and that’s not easy to find. Thankfully she’s past that now…unless she decides to go to grad. school!

  3. Great read!

  4. This is real good advice for all phases of your life! I sent this off to my daughter who is starting 9th grade next year!

  5. Asking for letters of recommendation is an extremely tough lesson in reality. Not only do students need to find appropriate candidates to write them to get into college but again for graduate school, to enter the work force, to get a promotion, to change careers, the list goes on and on.

    I never had the nerve to ask any of my professors for a letter of recommendation when I knew that I didn’t give 110 percent. (Which trust me, was a lot of the time). I agree with you, it’s not the final grade that shows your work ethic; people can get A’s without applying themselves. It comes down to character and integrity. If you can get a neighbor, pastor or the head of volunteer organization to vouch for your character better than a professor, then you should go to them for a letter of recommendation.

  6. Renee,

    As my daughter is just finishing her sophomore year and about to embark on her junior (and likely most important) year of high school, this blog is extremely useful and thought provoking! I am asked, from time to time, to write letters for teens in my youth group program, and occasionally feel challenged to write letters for those less-than-stellar leader-wannabe-types. I have found solice in seeking one strength that characterizes the person and focusing on that in the recommendation letter. In a highly competitive nation, where students are so often under tremendous stress to out-perform each other, perhaps it is important not to overlook those who sought us out as a mentor or needed a nudge to think better and do better. Maybe too little too late, or maybe an opportunity for a teachable moment, as with your french teacher. Thanks for waking up my morning (and first day of summer vacation!)

  7. I asked a theater director who I had worked with on a number of shows over 5 years to write me a recommendation for graduate school. I decided that someone who knew me as more than just a student would have more impact than a professor who knew who I was because I spoke up in class.

  8. that truly is great advice, and makes me recognize as a seventh grader to get in the habit of working super hard. Especially for those years ahead of me and recommendation letters! thanks!

    • Marete:
      Something tells me that you are not one of those kids who will hard a shortage of people to ask for recommendations. The mere fact that you are thinking about these things in 7th grade shows that you have tremendous foresight and you understand what it takes to succeed in the future! But you are right: It is never too early to start collecting people!

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