Every year, high school teachers across the country are asked to write college recommendations for their current and former students. With today’s competitive college culture, and an ever-growing list of teacher responsibilities—how can we be expected to write 10, sometimes more, original college recommendations each year for our students? As a teacher who was just introduced to all of this two years ago, I’ve spoken with college recruiters, researched how and what to include within a recommendation letter, consulted with guidance counselors (who see the range of recommendations, confidentially), and, most importantly, spoken with veteran teachers who write recommendation letters. After putting together the results of everything that I have learned, I have developed the following set of tips and advice. So, whether you are a pro at writing recommendation letters and are just looking to keep your letters fresh or you are a complete novice, as I was not too long ago, I hope that my advice will be helpful to you.
5. Introduce yourself.
While the recommendation is highlighting the student, it’s helpful to put into context how you know the student. This gives your reader an idea of how much and what kind of qualities you can speak to. Perhaps you know the student from class or from a club or school activity; the way in which you have come to know the student impacts just how well you can speak about the student’s abilities.
4. Having a structure is important.
I like my format, and I generally use the same one each year, but I also like to change the format between school years. Making adjustments to the format of my recommendation letters helps me to focus my thoughts about the student and to create a deeper reflection of the student’s character and abilities.
- Paragraph 1: a short description of how and in what capacity I know the student
- Paragraph 2: an academic refection about the student (work ethic, projects, organization, etc.)
- Paragraph 3: a character reflection about the student (contributions to class culture or school culture as an extension of your class discipline)
- Paragraph 4: the student’s potential (as a future professional in their discipline of interest, a unique way in which they connect their academic and extracurricular interests)
- Paragraph 5: your recommendation rating. As a professional, thus far in your career, how would you rank or recommend this student.
3. Describe a moment.
Anecdotes help to distinguish your recommendation letter from all others. I try to think about a moment where I discovered or realized something about the student—the moment where he or she matured and I noticed it. Bring your reader with you in a way that helps them to feel as if they have also witnessed the moment.
2. Spell check.
Grammar and spelling matter. You want your reader to access the content of the recommendation and not be distracted by poor writing. Remember, the admissions officers are reading hundreds of these letters. You are the teacher; your recommendation should be flawless.
1. If you can’t spend the time, then don’t agree to write.
On average, I try to spend 1 hour on each student recommendation—some more, some less, depending on my experience with the student. I like to set a limit at the beginning of the school year on the number of recommendation letters that I will write, depending on the time that I think I’ll have available. Your students will respect you for acknowledging the limitations on your time and will appreciate that, if you do agree to write on their behalf, you will spend the time necessary to write a stellar recommendation.