Saturday, January 19, 2019

Letters of Recommendation

By Margaret S. Hamilton

I spend October- January interviewing young women who are high school seniors for need and merit-based college scholarships. Based on feedback from my children, I schedule interviews in a high school conference room, rather than the local Starbucks. During an hour-long interview, I establish rapport with the candidate, explain the application process and deadline, and extract enough specific information from the candidate to write a detailed one- or two-page letter of recommendation. My objective is to create, on paper, a compelling portrait of the candidate that will persuade the screening committee to award her a scholarship.

Some of the information is easy to obtain: “What is your grade point average, what Advanced Placement classes have you taken, and where have you applied to college?”

 My questions become more difficult: “Everyone is a leader in her own way, at school, camp, or church. Can you describe your role as a leader?” Club president, camp counselor, Sunday School or Youth Group leader roles are typical. “Have you started or raised funds for a program? Do you mentor younger players on a high school team or organization? Do you train new employees at your workplace? Have you found an internship opportunity and followed through with the school administration?”

Many high schools have community service requirements. “What kind of community service do you perform? What do you enjoy the most about your community service?” One candidate from a large family explained her assigned chore was doing her grandparents’ yard work. We had a passionate discussion about how the elderly can age in their homes with access to community services like transportation and home maintenance assistance.

Preparation for college is more than Advanced Placement classes. “Tell me about your academic load this semester and how you balance it with sports, work, and family obligations.”

“I’ve read that a daily hour learning music or art techniques is beneficial to the learning process. Are you involved in the arts?”

Though babysitting for cash may be the most lucrative job available, I’m impressed with students who work in a restaurant or store, particularly those who work nights and weekends during the school year. “What are your job requirements? Do you enjoy your job? If you could have a different or better job, what would it be?”

 Consider Daisy, a fictional candidate I created for a workshop on writing letters of recommendation:

Daisy slipped into the conference room, gave me a limp handshake, and sat at the table, eyes downcast. Her hair was pulled into a tight ponytail, her nails bitten to the quick. She wore dog and cat-printed scrubs, a ratty hooded sweatshirt, and worn rubber clogs.

Daisy was on her way to her daily after-school job at a veterinary clinic, where she would work till their six o’clock closing. Before she was old enough for a work permit, she volunteered at the local animal shelter. The vet who became her mentor and employer noted that Daisy was that rare breed—a dog whisperer. The vet trained her both as her assistant and as a post-surgical caregiver for the dogs and cats in the practice. Daisy also works an eight-hour day on Saturdays, and fulltime during school vacations.

Daisy became more animated as she described the challenges of caring for ill or injured animals. She was convinced that one-on-one “cuddle time” was vital for successful healing. She has an excellent rapport with the animal patient owners, and carefully reviews with them her patient’s medications and care, often demonstrating how to administer a pill, eye drops, or ear ointment.

Daisy’s mentor has encouraged her career goal of veterinary medicine. With her mentor’s guidance, Daisy has completed the necessary math and science classes for a college major in Biology. Daisy is well aware of the highly competitive nature of veterinary school admissions, but is determined to do well enough in college to qualify for admission.

Daisy lives with her mother, who works two pink-collar jobs. Daisy had a thriving dog walking and pet sitting business, in addition to her animal shelter work, until she was old enough to work for the vet. Daisy commutes by bike to school and the animal hospital, and also does the household food-shopping, cleaning, and laundry. On Sundays, her only day off, she organizes soccer scrimmages for the children in her apartment complex and volunteers as a dog walker for elderly neighbors.

Due to her extreme financial need, Daisy has always selected classes for which she will earn the highest grades—honors or college prep instead of weighted accelerated/AP level. During her senior year, she is enrolled in her first AP class, Biology, where she proudly maintains an A average.

Daisy played JV soccer for three years, with the Booster Club paying for her cleats, shin guards, and athletic fees. She has never been able to afford club soccer or summer training camps to achieve the skill level necessary for the varsity team. She shrugged it off, telling me “vet school is more important.”

Daisy is a fiercely determined and hard-working young woman with a passion for veterinary medicine. I enthusiastically endorse her for a scholarship.

When I led a discussion at the scholarship workshop, one attendee was in tears. “If Daisy doesn’t get a scholarship, she won’t be able to attend college.”

I assured the woman that Daisy was typical of many young women, and yes, she would complete her education.

Readers and writers, are you involved in tutoring or mentoring students?

I interview candidates for P.E.O., a philanthropic, educational, organization that raises money for scholarships for women at the undergraduate, graduate, and return-to-college levels. Information about their scholarship projects can be found at:


  1. This is a wonderful thing you do, Margaret. I've critiqued and then helped students to polish their college essays, but this is several levels more important than that.

  2. Thanks, Warren. I'm an advocate, cheerleader, and mentor for these young women.

    Thanks, Jim. A recommendation letter is a version of a persuasive essay. I try to sprinkle in enough details to make the candidate come to life. Every candidate has a hook. Frequently, it takes a follow-up phone conversation to discover what it is.

  3. I am so thrilled to learn that you are doing this work in the world -- best of luck to Daisy, to all of them. When I miss teaching (which I do frequently until I remember grading) it is because of students like Daisy.

  4. Thanks, Tina. Daisy is a composite character based on several young women I interviewed. Daisy has been mentored to take easier classes to boost her GPA for maximum scholarship potential. If she isn't studying, she's working, every new pair of jeans representing careful budgeting. She has no time for friends or school social events.

    At the workshop, I mentioned my wish for Daisy: that she be awarded enough scholarship assistance to give her the gift of time. Time to make friends, time to read a book for pleasure, time to explore classes outside her pre-vet major. Of course, Daisy would probably take on training an assistance dog and lead a campus effort to recruit more student volunteers. Because that's who she is.

  5. What wonderful work you do for these young women.

    Of course, our basic problem is that, unlike most first world (and even second world) countries, higher education is priced practically out of reach for so many of our citizens, and it will take years before students who graduate with high debt loads can really begin their "adult" lives.

  6. Thanks, Kathleen. I've discussed the cheapest path to a Cincinnati college education with many candidates. For most of them, Federal student loans are part of their financial aid package.

  7. I'm not, but I think it is totally awesome what you do. I'm very impressed. I especially liked your interview with Daisy even if she's a composite character of more than one you have interviewed she's still a part of others you have interviewed and helped.

  8. Thanks Gloria! You do more than enough for your community.