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Fall is the season for college applications and teacher recommendations. While students are snowed under the back-to-school courseload, extracurriculars, and senior activities, teachers are slammed with parent communications, lunch-hall-carline-whatever duties, lesson plans, in-class engagement, and grading.
Adding a stack of college recommendations to a teacher’s otherwise overstuffed life is a necessary burden. Most teachers who have been around the block a time or two have a go-to formula to help save time and still write insightful information that is helpful to the admissions offices.
For those teachers who are new to the teacher rec-writing game, here are a few suggestions to help develop guidelines for writing college recommendations that give admissions readers crucial information in their decision-making process and also save the teacher a little time in completing this added blessing on the fall to-do list.
1. Be sincere. Your personal integrity with colleges and universities is riding on your honesty and authenticity. Not every student you teach is in the top one-to-two percent of your career or the top ten percent either. Overestimating a student’s ability or character could get that student into a college that is not a good fit. Moderate your language and try not to write everything as a superlative. On the other hand, if a student is at the top of all the students you have taught through the years, break out your strongest endorsements and superlative statements for them.
2. Be up-front. In everyone’s best interest, if you feel like what you can sincerely say about a student will not help their chances of getting into a college or university, let them know so they can ask a different teacher to write the recommendation. One year, I agreed to write recommendation letters for two editors on our student magazine staff. Shortly after, these two students started showing up for class a few minutes after the tardy bell a couple of times a week. Each time, they would apologize profusely and say it was because they were coming from an AP lab course and their lab ran long. When I began to doubt that their AP science class would be doing labs that often, I pulled them aside and told them I could no longer excuse their tardies. They apologized, as usual, and started getting to class on time for about a week. The next time the students were tardy, they came wandering into class halfway through the period, without excuse notes. I asked them where they had been and one student said, “Well, you know, boy problems. We had to have a little girl talk.” I looked at the other student and she said, “Well, I couldn’t tell her no.” Nope. That moment was not one of my better teaching moments, but ultimately, I let both students know that, in their own interest, they should probably find a different teacher to write their recommendations. Nothing I could say about their character would be helpful in their college admissions process.
3. Be concrete. Open the letter with a significant narrative. Explaining the situation that first made the student stand out to you is a good way to start. Maybe it was a class discussion. Or maybe that student stepped in to defend another student who was being bullied. Or maybe the student routinely spends all of lunch hour tutoring a friend who is struggling to understand a complex concept. Maybe the student’s research project was so well-researched and written that it had an impact on your personal beliefs about the topic. Whatever the story is, tell it. Let your opening paragraph be a verbal “video” of what you remember as most remarkable about this student.
4. Be thorough. Follow your opening narrative with a discussion of one or two character traits that best describe the student. Again, the strength of your own writing will come in your ability to help the reader “see” the student’s character by sharing narrative examples. Tell the story. Tell the story. Tell the story. Don’t shy away from sharing examples of growth… situations in which you’ve seen a student become more confident, kind, or hard-working. While it is easy in the body of the letter to recite the student’s resume, that information is already on the application. What is most helpful for admissions is knowing the person behind the accomplishment. Therefore, if an honor or award has a story behind it that shows student character, then tell the backstory. The journey to success is always more interesting than simply knowing there was a success. While most teachers want to paint a picture of perfection, the authenticity of a struggle that leads to growth is often more valuable in identifying whether a prospective student is a good fit with the prospective campus’ culture.
5. Be clear about what you see for the student’s future. Try not to end the recommendation letter with something like this: “Therefore, I highly recommend this student for admission to this university.” If you can see that student spending summers as an undergrad volunteering as an office assistant for a pro bono legal services agency near campus in preparation for law school where you are confident they will become a civil rights attorney, then say that. If you believe that the student will be more successful in college than high school because your school has few technology course options, and the student spends every free moment reading coding books and just needs an environment rich in technology to thrive, say that. Get into the specifics of why this student is a good fit for this college and this college is a perfect environment for this student.
Once you get a few teacher recommendation letters written, you will develop your own style and rhythm. Be careful not to slip into autopilot, though. Make sure your recommendations are genuine and thorough.
Do you have a particular way you prefer to write college recommendations? Please share in the comments below. The more people who jump into the conversation, the better we all become.