Monday, July 02, 2007


I would have been surprised by the letter I received from a reader in Yorba Linda, Calif., if a conversation with an English teacher from Indianapolis some weeks earlier hadn't prepared me for her question.

My Yorba Linda reader wanted to know what I thought of college-bound students who paid professional letter writers to write letters of recommendations for them. Several colleagues had told her that they'd hired writers to compose such letters for their children, letters to be given to prospective recommenders in hope of improving their children's chances of college acceptance.

The Indianapolis English teacher told me about a parent who had e-mailed him with suggested language to use in a college recommendation that she had asked him to write for her son. The teacher was taken aback by her e-mail. Never before had anyone dictated what to write about a student in a recommendation letter. If the mother tells him what to write, he figured, doesn't that make it a letter from her? What kind of message does that send her son? Where's the honesty in that?

Granted, the quest to gain acceptance to college is an anxiety-laden process for children and their parents. Increasingly parents with sufficient resources are turning to consultants to guide them in gaining their children admission to their colleges of choice. Even the Indianapolis English teacher runs workshops on how to write an effective college-application essay.

But he stops short of actually writing the essays for his students. He simply gives advice on the best way to think about responding to the essay questions on college applications.

For years students have given their application essays to favorite teachers for feedback before sending them off to colleges. It's one thing, however, to tell a student that a portion of her essay is unclear and that she should consider rewriting it. It's quite another thing to rewrite it for her.

It's a giant leap, and not in a good direction, for students -- or their hired guns -- to write their own recommendation letters and then hand them, fully formed, to be signed by people they've asked to recommend them to colleges. Forget for a moment that it's insulting to ask someone to do something and then act as if he or she is not up to the task, and that it's not much of a way to enhance that person's opinion of you. The core issue is that it's downright dishonest.

Hiring someone to write a college recommendation letter for you, and then expecting a teacher or other recommending person to simply affix his or her name to it, falls short by any ethical yardstick. Colleges should prohibit the practice and toss out any applicants whom they discover to be guilty of the practice. High-school counselors should steer students clear of any such activity. Parents who have engaged in it should be ashamed of themselves.

The right thing for high-school students to do, and for parents and advisors to guide them to do, is to be sure that the people they ask to recommend them are capable of pointing out their strengths as people, citizens and prospective college students. If they can't find two or three people who are both willing to write positive things about them and capable of doing so, that in itself speaks volumes about their character.

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