I always tell my students to be more precise in their writing, but I am of course guilty of the same imprecision. As I work on this year's second round of letters of recommendation (for scholarships and the like), I am trying to stop myself from misusing the adjective "mature" to describe a student.

Why do I say I've been "misusing" that? I always mean it as a compliment, to be sure. And it's not one I use lightly. But a few things bother me.

For one, it's not technically correct. They aren't "fully grown" intellectually, emotionally, or socially–at least, I sure hope not. So I suppose I generally use it in the more colloquial sense of "adult-like." But how much of a compliment is that? I know plenty of adults who are miserable people. They may be "mature", but I wouldn't recommend them for much of anything, let alone a scholarship to a prestigious university.

So, I'm going to try and be more precise. If a student is more distinguished than her peers in an area, I'll say so.

  • Unselfish – One area in which we adults often think that we are more mature than our students is that we have outgrown the natural narcisissm of adolescence. That's more true of many students than it is of some colleagues. Whether a student has demonstrated this through community service or through daily acts of kindness, many are beginning to see that the world does not, in fact, revolve around them.
  • Reflective – Yes, teenagers make bad decisions. I know I did, and that hasn't changed. What begins to distinguish some students is the ability to reflect on those decisions, good and bad. They've gone from simply reacting to their circumstances to reflecting. Again, how many adults have this skill? No, an eighteen-year-old doesn't have as much experience to draw from as a middle-aged woman. But then again, how many adults spent years making the same mistakes, because they never bothered to really think about what was happening? For these students, the experience will come no matter what, but will they learn from it?
  • Intellectual – This has nothing to do with their grades. Which students, when interested in a subject, have the curiosity to want to learn more? Or perhaps it's even more basic: Do they at least understand why a subject is important, even if they aren't interested?
  • Sense of humor – Look, if a senior understands my dry, sarcastic humor, I think that's worthy of a mention. Bonus points for their ability to engage me in witty repartee.

Fortunately for me, I work in a school that values these same traits. That means writing these letters of recommendation is pretty easy. I'll just try a little harder to convey just how fortunate I am to have gotten to know these young women.