To whom it may concern...
Even so, I never feel that I know them well enough to say whether they would be a good graduate student or public relations intern; nor can I imagine that the things we have discussed in any of my courses are relevant to their future prospects. I mean really. Does Baroque architecture or Book IX of the Iliad come up in many professions? Has any cutting-edge, high-tech CEO ever reached for the phone and yelled, "We've got a serious situation here. Get our Milton expert on the line. Stat!"
Nevertheless, the students keep asking and I try to do the best I can by writing a positive and personalized letter. It's not easy and I confess to resorting at times to a generic all-purpose template. I usually speak to a paper they wrote for me or their work ethic and ability to play nice with others. You know, the typical vacuous platitudes. Anyway, I suspect that letters of recommendation only matter when they're negative, which means my kind words are simply pro forma requirements that neither sink nor secure the acceptance of a candidate. Mostly I keep saying yes to these requests because people once did it for me.
The only letter of recommendation I recall with fondness was written for a former student who took only one class from me. I first met him via the Admissions Office, which had asked me to look over his application. He had through-the-roof SAT scores but an abysmal high school GPA. Moreover, he had written a letter to explain his low grades. The letter quoted the Upanishads and was superbly written. It also employed British spelling throughout. No doubt the kid had been bored out of his skull in high school. So that's how we accepted our first provisionally-admitted honors student.
The first week of class we were reading Descartes' Meditations and I threw out some opening gambit of a question to start the discussion. The kid immediately responds, "No." So I ask him how he knew and he says that he knew the answer was no because he had stayed up until four that morning thinking about it. Then he patiently went through his faultless reasoning for the answer. Later in the semester he hit upon an odd strategy to secure a date: cross dressing until someone agreed to go out with him. Strangely, it worked.
After his first year he transferred to a state university, but three years later he wrote me to ask for a letter of recommendation for a graduate program in psychology. I happily wrote on his behalf, assuring the application reviewers that I had no clue whether he would do well in their program. I knew one thing, though. They would never forget him.