On Writing College Recommendation Letters

I have a happy list of students who have asked me to write college recommendation letters for them.

I so love that they've asked me.  I teach tenth grade, so they've had a whole host of awesome teachers since our class to choose from.  Of course it's not a super selective contest, being chosen to write a letter of recommendation, but I still know they have plenty of great choices in the matter.  I try to take my responsibility seriously when they trust me with this task.

TRUE STORY:  I have a secret copy of a recommendation letter that my favorite teacher wrote for me when I was a high school senior.  It lives in my files with other things that are tremendously important and somehow comprise the person I am.  And so.

It would be easy to write the same things over and over again, or to make every good student sound like every other one.  Here are my tips for writing letters of recommendation that show the strength and uniqueness of each candidate.


All good students demonstrate a decent work ethic and a respect for others.  I try to focus on the personality trait that is less obvious, but truly defining of that student.  Sometimes it's an unexpected maturity.  A true intellectual curiosity.  An uncanny perseverance.  An enthusiasm from someone who loves learning for its own sake.  A sense of compassion that seems increasingly rare.  A certain grit.  A truly honest character.  A creative imagination.  When I start thinking outside of the box, it becomes pretty easy to see what makes each student remarkable.


There's probably a reason the letter of recommendation is not simply a form with check boxes.  It's an opportunity for you to share your own perspective on a student, and that comes from the experiences you have had with him/her.  Write about the time you saw the student in his best light, or when he really rose to the occasion, or when he said or did something that surprised you.  This short glimpse into the student from your perspective is what cannot be gleaned from the rest of the application.


The student's grades are on the transcript, and he/she probably wouldn't have asked you to write a recommendation after having done poorly in your class.  Instead of focusing on the grade itself, consider writing about how the student earned that grade.  Did his creativity spawn the most incredible projects?  Was her writing among the best you've ever read?  Did she stay after school regularly and work her butt off to earn it?  How the student met your requirements for excellence probably reveals how he/she will excel moving forward, too.


Students have a right to know what the recommendation letter says, so I usually ask the candidates if there are things they would like me to include.  I always gather information from them, including grades throughout high school, extracurricular activities, awards earned, etc..  I also double-check with them to make sure I'm not sharing any personal information that they would not want to include.  I've found the students' feedback to be really helpful in the process.

What other strategies and tools do you use in writing college recommendations?


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