A high school guidance counselor at a Midwestern suburban school had a difficult decision to make. One of his students--an outstanding hockey player with a solid B average--was applying to a highly selective college. The student asked the counselor to write a letter of recommendation on his behalf.
The problem was that the student had been caught plagiarizing during his junior year.
The guidance counselor knew the boy was basically "a good kid'' who could probably get into the college of his choice and do quite well. The counselor also knew that if he mentioned the plagiarism, the student's chances for admission would be jeopardized. On the other hand, if he didn't mention it, he would be lying by omission to college officials who rely on his honesty.
After some deliberation, the counselor chose to omit the sensitive information. "I'm not going out of my way to label a student,'' he says in justifying his decision, "because I know that if I put one little negative ink blot on a student's application, colleges will be looking for that.''
This fall, thousands of teachers and guidance counselors in high schools across the country are being asked to write letters of recommendation. Some of them, like this counselor, will face painful dilemmas. If they are not completely candid, they may be compromising their ethics and, eventually, their credibility with college admission officers. If they tell it like it is, they may be raising problems not only for their students, but for themselves.
Competition to get into selective colleges has been especially intense in the 1980's. For some youngsters--and even more for some of their parents-- failure to be admitted to the college of their choice is a calamity. And if the rejection can be traced to a negative letter of recommendation, the writer may be in for some unpleasantness, and even, perhaps, for legal action.
"I have no doubt that I refrain from saying things I used to because of the liability situation,'' says a counselor at a New York City private school who was threatened with a lawsuit over one of his recommendations.
So far, no lawsuits have actually been brought against teachers and guidance counselors over college entrance letters, according to William Albright, president of Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C. But the extraordinary growth of litigation as the preferred way of resolving disputes, he notes, greatly increases the potential for legal action against teachers or counselors who aren't careful.
Educators who write prudently should have nothing to worry about, says Ivan Gluckman, director of legal services for the National Association of Secondary School Principals. A student who files suit, Gluckman adds, would have a hard time showing any actual damage.
It is not only the threat of a lawsuit that may prompt some teachers and counselors to omit negative comments from their letters. Administrators in schools with high college-attendance rates often send subtle but clear signals to teachers and counselors that their goal should be to get as many students as possible into the most prestigious colleges and universities.
At private schools the pressure can be particularly intense. "Parents at certain schools have the attitude that not only are they paying for a private school education, but guaranteed admission to a good college, too,'' says a counselor at a private school in New York City. "They think it's a service that is owed to them, whatever it takes.''
What is owed, college officials insist, are honest recommendations from high schools. And in many instances they don't think they're getting them.
The issue was raised publicly two years ago, when the former head of admission at Brown University sent out a strongly worded letter to 7,000 secondary school counselors. In his communique, James Rogers 3rd noted that there had been a "slippage in the reporting of important but sensitive information about candidates.''
He added that ``anxiety and angst felt by applicants and parents have produced such pressure on counselors, headmasters, and principals that I believe some schools have found it easier to say nothing than to report such information.''
Rogers' letter was prompted, in part, because letters of recommendation have become increasingly important in admission decisions. Deluged with high-quality applicants, admission officers at the most elite schools need the most reliable information they can get to make tough choices between the few who make it and the many who don't. This is particularly true now that such standard measures of academic potential as the Scholastic Aptitude Test have been called into question in recent years. Several colleges--Bates and Bowdoin in Maine, and Union in New York among them-- no longer even require applicants to submit SAT scores.
Because a student's high school grades and class rank are directly related to the quality and grading standards of the school, they are not totally reliable predictors.
"More than anything else, a candid recommendation tells us who the student is,'' says Harold Wingood, associate director of undergraduate admission at Duke University. "That's when we have the opportunity to better understand the student's character.'' The growing importance of the letter of recommendation sharpens the dilemma over how candid the writer should be.
"We understand that the teenage years are ones of experimentation,'' Rogers acknowledges. "And part of that is making mistakes. Now, if the counselor says that Johnny had some trouble with a six-pack in his junior year, that's O.K. But when we hear about it secondhand, we question every other comment we get from the school.''
While Rogers notes that "rites of passage'' infractions should not be judged harshly, he admits that students who commit serious disciplinary infractions or acts of academic dishonesty--especially during their senior year--would probably not be offered admission to Brown. But that doesn't excuse teachers or counselors from their responsibility to inform the college of such offenses, he says.
Making teachers and guidance counselors even more wary of being candid is the fact that there is little agreement on what constitutes a "rites of passage'' infraction. Secondary school educators say they are concerned that anything less than a "100 percent positive'' recommendation can and will be used against an applicant. Some say they have included sensitive information in a recommendation to demonstrate a student's strength in overcoming a problem, only to discover later it was the basis for rejecting the student.
Joseph Hooker, a guidance counselor at Beverly Hills High School in suburban Los Angeles, recalls writing a strong, positive recommendation for a student who had recovered from anorexia nervosa. Although the letter emphasized the student's victory, Hooker later learned it had kept the girl out of her first-choice school.
"I asked them, 'Didn't you appreciate my frankness?'' Hooker says. "They told me, 'No.' They were concerned about what she was going to do when she got there.''
Admission officials at several colleges say they have been "burned'' by letters that convinced them to accept a student who later proved to have long-term problems.
Thomas Parker, acting director of admission at Williams College, says his school once admitted a student who became anorexic and a discipline problem during her freshman year. Only then did the school learn that she had been expelled from her secondary school--and that her academic record had been altered to hide this fact. "The girl was at the wrong place for all the wrong reasons--and would have been better off somewhere else,'' explains Parker.
Confusion over what to include or omit in letters of recommendation has increased since the passage of the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. The 1974 law, commonly known as FERPA or the Buckley Amendment, allows students access to their academic records. The law also stipulates that information about a student cannot be released without the permission of the student, or his or her parents if the student is underage.
Most colleges include a section on the application form that allows students to sign away their Buckley rights. But even if a student waives these rights, teachers are still required to stick to the student's official record. They are not permitted to disclose personal information about a student that is not in the record, says Albright of Johnson C. Smith University.
For instance, a student may confide to a teacher or guidance counselor that his poor performance during a particular marking period was due to his parents' messy divorce or an overambitious schedule of sports, study, and a part-time job. The educator, in turn, might be inclined to include this information in the recommendation, thinking the admission officials will view the poor grades less harshly.
Such a scenario is common, says Albright, but it violates the Buckley Amendment because neither the student nor the family has authorized the release of such personal information in advance.
The need for common sense and caution also extends to phone calls with college admission officials. A Florida counselor found this out the hard way. Several years ago, he revealed to a college admission representative that an applicant from his school had told him that she was not seriously interested in attending the institution. The student's mother, meanwhile, had put tremendous pressure on both the guidance counselor and the college to have her daughter accepted. After the student was rejected, the mother learned about the telephone conversation and managed to get the counselor fired.
More often than not, teachers and counselors find writing a recommendation an enjoyable task. Letters may fairly glow as a student's diligent work habits, extracurricular achievements, and pleasant demeanor are described. In fact, the easiest way for a teacher to convey reservations about a student is simply to write a straightforward, rather prosaic letter that will contrast with the traditional gushing letters that admission officials generally receive.
When a negative point does need to be made, experts suggest playing it safe by confining remarks to factual statements that relate to classroom performance. Reporting the number of classes a student missed, for instance, rather than using adjectives such as "irresponsible'' or "lazy,'' will get the intended point across.
If there is the potential for legal or other problems, there is another way to handle a sticky recommendation: Don't write it at all.
"You do have the right to turn down a student's request,'' points out Jack Gerol, a college counselor at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill. New Trier students are asked to approach teachers in a way that gives the teacher an option. "Do you feel you can write a supportive letter for me?'' allows an uncomfortable teacher to recommend a "more appropriate'' person for the task.
"Typically, though,'' says Gerol, "we don't refrain from writing. Most kids have a lot of good points that can be played up to balance a weaker area. And we try to keep in mind that we can't really predict how they'll do once they're in college--so we try hard not to play God.''