To the Letter

National Honor Society and student council advisers often are among the first individuals students approach to request a letter of recommendation. But you may wonder: Does anybody really ever read these things?

The answer is “Yes.” There are colleges that do not require recommendations, but those that do require them use them. And the more selective the college, the more closely the letter is read.

Measuring Value

What is the purpose of the recommendation letter? What value does it bring to students’ college applications?

The primary assignment of the teacher recommendation is to describe the intellectual life of a student. The counselor letter (sometimes called the “school letter”) provides a 360-degree view of the student, and, in that view, might quote teacher comments extensively.

The student might write an essay about a particular academic experience. But no contributor to a student’s application can match a teacher’s insight into how a student explores and connects ideas, how a student reacts to setbacks, how a student works, how a student learns. College admission offices look to teacher recommendations to determine a student’s habits of mind, originality of thought, work ethic, and sense of classroom citizenship.

As you approach this exercise, take time to understand in what context the student is seeking a recommendation. Do you know this student in the classroom? Or do you strictly know this student in the context of your chapter’s or council’s activities?

If you know the student in your teaching capacity, understand that, ultimately, the teacher recommendation has to be about the student as a student—as an intellectual, academic being—because colleges and universities are, at their core, academic institutions. If a teacher focuses exclusively on a student’s extracurricular life for the “teacher” recommendation, the resulting recommendation may be a warm, fun, supportive piece of writing, but on some level it will have done the student a disservice. A crucial element (perhaps the most important element)—evidence of the student as a learner—will be missing. If your experience is strictly as that of an adviser, bear this in mind, as colleges are seeking an understanding of the student’s intellectual capacity. Be certain to relate in your letter how the student used his or her role to demonstrate their aptitude as a learner.

You will likely be asked to write letters for students who simply know you as “teacher” and have no relationship with you relative to your adviser status. Use the following tips to assist in preparing recommendation letters for any student.

Shapes and Sizes 

What should the recommendation letter look like? While there is no hard-and-fast rule about the length of the letter (unless the student’s story requires special explanation or clarification), 500 to 800 words is an appropriate length. That being said, it is not a required length. If you can capture the student in a meaty, well-developed paragraph, so much the better. The admission reader will appreciate the content and the brevity. A few teachers have perfected the art of the one- to two-sentence description. Here is an example: “The other day when Claudia, of her own initiative, stepped up and walked her classmates through the mysteries of the quadratic equation, I realized yet again what a clear thinker she is and what a generous presence she brings to class every day. This year’s class would not have been as successful as it was without her.” Others, faced with a large load of letters, will present observations in bullet form. Some college admission officers appreciate this approach.

A beginning paragraph should describe the main idea(s) you wish to convey about the student; a middle or body paragraph should provide facts, evidence, and anecdotes from your classroom time with the student; and a closing paragraph should strongly emphasize the reasons why you appreciate the student and why you were willing to write a letter for the student in the first place.

What you want to say about the student will help determine how many paragraphs you need. There may be a particular aspect of the student’s interaction with you—a golden moment of learning or leadership achievement; a complication that you and the student worked to overcome; an involved anecdote that brings one of the student’s admirable qualities into sharp focus—that requires its own paragraph.

If you are writing as both a teacher and adviser, you may also want to include a paragraph about the other ways you know the student beyond the classroom. Your conclusion can then show how your knowledge about the student outside the classroom connects with the student you know inside the classroom.

The Heart of the Matter

How do you gather material for the letter and what do you say?

Teachers, particularly teachers of juniors, have devised a range of ways to collect material about students. Some, as a simple matter of classroom management, keep a running journal of noteworthy things that happen in the classroom each day. They can then pull anecdotes and insights from that journal when they write recommendations. NHS and student council advisers can employ this same strategy.

In schools where teachers write comments for each grading period, some choose to write thorough, highly specific comments each time so that, in effect, they have already written the bulk of a recommendation should a student ask for one.

Others will see how relationships with students develop over the first half of the year. Where they see real connection begin to spark, they will take more careful notes about the student and make copies of particularly strong papers, lab reports, etc.

Teachers might also consider asking the student to write why he or she really valued the course and to note highlights of the year.

In general, if you are feeling a bit stumped about where to begin with the letter, review what you observed in your classes or chapter/council meetings. Does the student work independently? Take risks? Seek challenges? Play it safe? Meet deadlines? Dig in after disappointment? Was the student reliable? Respectful? Self-aware? Courageous? Funny? Productively disruptive? Calming? Has the student grown over the course of the year? If so, how? Do any patterns about the way the student thinks or behaves emerge? Is the student a joyful, creative, happy learner? What do you admire most about the student? In what ways was the student an important and valuable member of your classroom or chapter/council community?

Be a Storyteller and an Advocate

When writing in your capacity as a student’s teacher, always remember that your primary responsibility is to tell the academic story of the student. The extent to which you do that well—with honesty and clarity and thoughtfulness—will go a long way to securing your reputation and, by extension, your school’s reputation over time.

Colleges pay attention to the reliability of the letters that are written. Some recommenders are trusted, and others are not. Your credibility as an advocate for your students depends greatly on the care you take with your letters. When you advocate responsibly, you serve yourself, your institution, and, most importantly, your students in the best way possible. Colleges see teachers, their schools, and their students as they really are, and, as a result, students have the optimal chance of being accepted where they will really thrive and where they truly belong. Would you want the college experience to end any other way?

Rod Skinner is the director of college counseling at Milton Academy in Massachusetts.

Recommendation Letter FAQ

What kind of voice and tone of voice should I use?

Remember that college admission officers spend on average 15–20 minutes on the entire application. So, they are looking for clarity and information, not elegant prose. Speak/write naturally. Think of your letter as a conversation with fellow educators who want to know what you think about the student. They don’t need fancy language; they need to know the kid.

If I think the student is a real star, can I say so?

Absolutely! Colleges always want to hear about genuine “blue chippers.” Just remember that not every student can be a blue chipper. Be discriminating; show that you can recognize true excellence when you see it, that you know the difference between a local hero and that truly magical student who would shine anywhere. No matter how much affection you have for a student, don’t let that cloud your perspective. That way, as colleges read your letters over time, they will come to consider you a reliable, valuable judge of talent. Your word will carry weight.

What if I’m not so sure I can write a positive letter for a student? Should I still agree to write the letter when asked?

If you cannot write a positive letter for a student, you should decline a request for a recommendation. It is not fair to the student if you agree to write a letter in which you cannot be positive.

What if two students—one slightly stronger than the other but both of whom I feel very enthusiastic about—ask me to write recommendations to many of the same colleges? Should I give the slightly weaker one a slightly more enthusiastic letter?

Your responsibility is to write the most thorough and enthusiastic letter possible for each candidate. Leave it to the colleges to make the ultimate decision. Remember that, in this case, you would represent a common denominator; a stronger letter for the weaker student might mean the weaker student gets admitted and the stronger one does not.

Is it appropriate to write about disciplinary trouble, family turmoil, medical leaves, or diagnosed learning differences in a teacher recommendation?

Check with the administration and the college guidance office before including any sensitive, personal information about the student in your letter. That sort of disclosure is generally the responsibility of the school or counselor letter, not the teacher recommendation.

Should I fill out the check boxes on the recommendation forms?

Find out your school’s policy on this. In some schools, particularly where counselors and teachers have large caseloads, the check boxes help manage the large volume of recommendations that need to be written. In other schools, check boxes are seen as diminishing or muting the student’s story—a shortcut to a decision that does not do that story justice.

What are some common mistakes in teacher recommendations?

  • Forgetting to sign the letter.
  • Failing to identify the course taught or in what capacity the teacher knew the student.
  • Using too much of the letter to describe the course and the teacher’s background.
  • Making reference to the student’s physical appearance, political leanings, religion, etc. Unless one of those factors is central to the academic story of the student, it does not belong in a recommendation.
  • Writing a customized letter for each college. One substantive and thorough letter will suffice. Besides, a letter customized to the individual college can lead to the next common error …
  • Putting the name of one college in a letter being sent to another college.
  • Forgetting to keep a copy of each recommendation in case a student needs it later.
  • Using judgmental language without evidence to back it up. Only give observable, verifiable facts.