When parents write recommendation letters

Time Magazine ran a story recently about a growing trend: colleges—including Smith, Mt. Holyoke, Holy Cross in Massachusetts and the University of Richmond—asking parents to submit letters of recommendation on behalf of their student.

That’s a lot of pressure on a parent.  So if you’re invited to submit a letter of recommendation for your son or daughter, here are a few tips.

1. Don’t worry.
Unless you write two pages detailing just how adept your student is at lying, cheating or setting the house on fire, it’s nearly impossible for you to single-handedly torpedo his or her admissions chances.  You don’t have to say all the right things.  You don’t have to write like Hemingway.  Even if English isn’t your first language, your student won’t be penalized (in fact, that can actually make your support even more endearing).  Colleges don’t do this to test you or your student.  They’re just trying to inject a little more personal flavor into the process.  Don’t let this addition to the application create even more pressure.

2. Be honest.
If you read a raving letter of recommendation for a job applicant that claimed he was perfect in every way, wouldn’t it be a little hard to believe?  Successful college applicants (and teachers who write letters of recommendation) know that honesty goes a long way.  If your student has struggled at times in high school, acknowledge it.  If she rode the bench for two years of water polo but made you proud every day she left the house at 5 a.m. for practice, say so.  If it’s been hard for your student to measure up to her two sisters who went to Ivy League schools, don’t be afraid to share it.  A letter full of overwhelming and over-polished praise won’t ring as true as one that just tells the truth.  

3. Focus on your student.
It’s easy for a parent recommender to focus on the reasons you think the school is such a good fit for your student, or how many influential alumni you know, or how much your family enjoyed the campus tour.  But those subjects take the focus away from the point of the letter—your student.  It’s fine to mention all of those things, but keep asking yourself, “How doest his help them get to know my kid?”  That will keep you focused on the most important subject. 

4. Don’t turn the letter into a sales pitch. 
Reciting accomplishments that are listed on the application just repeats what a college already knows.  Instead, use this as a chance for them to learn more about your student and your relationship together.  If she’s helped you by taking care of her little sister every day, share it.  If she burned her arm making fries at her part time job and refused to take a day off, tell them.  If you left work early for the first time in your life to watch your son kick for the football team in the playoffs, that’s a nice family story worth sharing.  Parents have a unique perspective, one these colleges want to hear.  Sales pitches ignore that perspective.

5. Focus on recent history.
Every day of your student’s life has been important to you.  But you’ve got limited space in this letter, and colleges are most interested in the high school years.  You don’t have to ignore a past event that had an impact, but if you want to mention that your son had a serious illness as a toddler, or that he overcame a learning disability in elementary school, or that the divorce was hard on him in junior high, focus on how those experiences reflect in your student or your family today.  Whether or not you can make that connection between past events and the present day is your litmus test for whether a past experience deserves to be included in your letter.