For the past 15 years, I’ve taught high school English in both public and private schools, in rural and urban settings, and to kids of every socio-economic background, race, ability-level and motivational drive. Despite this professional variety, one detail has remained constant for me: I’ve always taught at least one class of juniors. And because of this, I’ve written hundreds of college recommendation letters.
It’s an important job. Although I know my letter won’t be the deciding factor in a student’s admittance to an institution, I’ve been told by college counselors and admissions officers that my comments personalize the process and hold legitimate sway. So, I do the best I can. These are four years of someone’s life, after all. Not that long by most adult standards. But for a 17-year-old? I try to remember exactly what my students feel they are entrusting me with.
When my most recent batch of juniors came to me, requesting I write on their behalf, I said yes. And then thought about all the things they either did or didn’t do over the course of their junior year in my class that I either could or could not write about. I wished, 15 years in, I would have placed a quick pause on my introductory lesson for American Lit and instead begun a little life chat. Here are five pieces of advice I’d like to share now:
- Be present: Physically, sure. Attendance helps. But I’m talking about engagement. Even if you’re not loving “The Great Gatsby,” even if you’re not reading “The Great Gatsby” (you are reading it, right?), show me that you’re thinking about it, searching for its relevance, listening to the connections your classmates are making, asking good questions. Nothing impresses me more than a student who is able to show up to class every day, convinced there is something to be learned.
- Be courageous: Speak up. Admit you don’t understand, or that you do. Ask another student to clarify — even the kid you’re certain is getting an A. Be honest about what you believe. If you feel those beliefs evolving, try to sidestep fear and pay attention. Even when it’s risky, write what you want to write. Remember, as Emerson insists, “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.”
- Be collaborative: Most people would agree that our current political and societal discourse is, in a word, disharmonious. So, it is ever more necessary that people learn to sit with those of differing opinions and backgrounds, listen to one another and work together. Whether you like group projects or not, understand these assessments are microcosms for the world you are about to enter. Extrovert, introvert, leader or follower — whatever you are, be certain you remember the table Hughes describes, and that you make space around it for a variety of voices.
- Be curious: The easiest letters I write are about kids who are intrinsically interested. They stay after class to keep discussing Cather or they ask for more stories by Cisneros or they want to know — really know — why it is that when O’Brien writes a certain way, they feel like they’re not just reading about the jungles of Vietnam, but actually there, covered in blood and sweat and regret. These conversations have nothing to do with grades or, God forbid, points. They are about wonder. About a quest for knowledge. About all that cannot be seen — yet. Your capacity for awe and attraction to inquiry say a lot about your readiness for higher education, so let your interests lead.
- Be grateful: The fact that you are even considering college is a testament to your privilege. You can read. You can write. You have been shown how to join the conversation. These are life-changing, life-giving tools. So please, appreciate your school; regardless of your experience in any one class, as a collective, your school has given you an education that many teenagers around the world would risk their lives for. And appreciate your teachers, too. They are not perfect. They are tired on Monday mornings just like you. If their stupid jokes make the top of your head feel like it’s been taken off, I know it’s probably not for the same reason Dickinson describes. But help a teacher out: Laugh anyway.
These tips are not exclusive to students looking for a good letter of recommendation, or even those interested in attending college at all. They are life lessons I wish I had known when I was 17 — that kid who tolerated math and adored English, the one who wanted to do well, but operated mostly on a nebulous instinct. Relax, I want to tell her. The next stage of life will arrive without you racing toward it. For now, for these last two years of high school, in every way you can, show up. Treat each day like the curiosity it is. See what you can learn.
As I return to the classroom this fall, my first year in which I’ll be trading out junior classes for senior ones, I am anticipating a few more requests for letters. But most requests will be for other things: college talk, fresh eyes on an original poem, a little encouragement when it comes to maneuvering through another still-awkward homecoming dance. For the most part, my recommendations will remain the same: Be present. Be grateful. Make it worth writing about.
Emily Brisse, a teacher and writer, is at work on a novel related to education. Connect with her on Instagram at @emilybrisse.