Honor a Student by Writing a Thoughtful Letter of Recommendation

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I’ve been teaching high school for 22 years, and even though requests wax and wane throughout the years, I write, on average, about 15 recommendation letters per year. That’s 330 letters at about 300-500 words, which translates to almost 100,000 words—about the size of a robust novel.

Letters of recommendation are important documents that accompany a student’s college application package. But students will also ask teachers to pen letters for scholarships, summer camps, jobs, clubs, teams, and other organizations. In addition, I’ve written letters to local judges on behalf of students who were involved in child custody issues or were working through probationary sentences. These letters also require thoughtful framing and honest descriptions of their behavior, their attendance, or their academic performance.

In 2006, I created an online folder to store these missives and resolved to keep each letter for five years. I realized students, upon receiving admission to their dream college, often contacted me during their freshman year for another letter of recommendation for an internship or a summer job opportunity. It’s handy to retrieve the already-penned recommendation, tweak it slightly, and send it out.

I am opposed to form letters for these requests, even though I know many teachers use them as time-savers. I consider it an honor to write a well-developed, insightful letter of recommendation. I’m with my students 90 minutes daily, five days a week, for 175 days a year. I teach some students over multiple years, and I know others as participants in extracurricular clubs and organizations. I see them at their best and their worst. I read what they write; I listen to them speak. I watch them grow, and I know their potential. The goal and purpose of a soundly written letter of recommendation is not only to recommend someone for acceptance, but to paint a clear picture of this student as a real person with a bright future.

But what about the mediocre student who may not have achieved much, or a student you just cannot recommend? In the case of mediocrity, find something positive to say about the student. Was she kind to others? Always on time? Did he show potential in a specific area? Was she organized? Did he refrain from bulldozing others with his opinion? In the case of a student you cannot recommend, be honest. It’s not fair to the student (or to her future college and/or employer) to write a letter of empty platitudes. Tell the student you don’t feel qualified or comfortable writing a letter of recommendation for him, but suggest other teachers or counselors who might be able to honor his request.

If you’d like to up your letter-of-recommendation game, here are a few tips:

1. Ask the student to provide you with an academic resume. I’m always surprised when I ask seniors for a list of achievements, and they don’t have one at the ready. Asking students to develop an academic resume serves two purposes: It requires them to reflect over the last four years of high school and record the honors and achievements they’ve received, clubs and organizations they’ve been a part of, leadership positions or jobs they’ve held, and various church, civic, or community service projects they’ve completed. It also allows you to see them as well-rounded individuals outside the narrow window of your classroom. While you shouldn’t rehash information that will appear in other parts of the application, you might like to drop a few academic references about the student to create the whole picture.

2. Go beyond the stats. Students are more than their GPA, their ACT/SAT scores, or their class rank. A letter of recommendation is an opportunity for you to showcase the untestable skills and talents you know your students have. Write about your students’ tenacity, resilience, creativity, inquisitiveness, enthusiasm, or self-discipline. I like to reference specific instances of their graciousness and kindness toward me or their peers. Offer evidence of these qualities from your perspective as a classroom teacher or a club sponsor.

3. Tailor your approach to the organization for which you are writing. This is another reason I’m opposed to form letters. You wouldn’t highlight the same skills and talents of a student seeking admission to an outdoor exploratory summer research program as you would if that same student sought a recommendation as a volunteer on a pediatric ward at a local hospital. You would want to highlight physical toughness or research skills in the former, and compassion and patience in the latter. These two opportunities require different highlights of your student’s complex personality.

4. Build your letter around two or three words. When I think of John, for example, I think of industry and trustworthiness, and I would want to build my explanation of his character around those qualities. Determining a few words for each student will help you write with cohesion and unity, and create a distinct impression. For Regan, I might want to shape a letter focused on her uncompromising integrity and honesty, writing specific examples from when I witnessed this quality during my interactions with her. For another student, I might want to highlight his originality, his entrepreneurial spirit, or his risk-taking, and use those characteristics as a foundation on which to build a solid letter.

5. Always tell a story. The power of narrative cannot be underestimated in a letter of recommendation. Think of your student as a character and think of a "This one time in my English class..." moment in your history with her. Sure, I could say, "Avery seeks academic challenge beyond that required by normal course work," or instead, I could tell the story about his refusal to go to a University of Kentucky football game with his parents because he hadn’t written his personal goal of 1,000 words a day in his writing notebook. Stories provide flesh-and-blood evidence of an abstract claim.

6. Always follow professional formatting for a standard business letter. If you haven’t written a business letter in a while, brush up on the form. Always write the letter on your school’s letterhead. Always address the specific person and institution to whom you are writing. And if time warrants, let your letter season a bit on the shelf, then proofread. You’ll see where the holes and typos are more quickly if you have some distance from the original creation.

Every day, teachers provide invaluable services by cultivating global awareness, encouraging reading and writing habits, and launching students into the world of critical thinking. But they also directly impact the future of their students in a more intentional way by penning an endorsement for future opportunities. Recommending students is an important part of an educator’s job, and the process requires time and effort to develop a quality product.

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