Each year our office receives 20,000+ applications, which means we are reading double to triple that number of recommendation letters. These letters play an integral role in rounding out a student’s file in the holistic review process. By telling us about the student’s work habits, personality traits, and areas of growth, you are giving us insight into what we can expect to see from them in our classrooms, residence halls, and other social spaces on campus. As the academic school year commences, we thought it would be helpful to share some of our own observations around what comprises particularly informative teacher recommendations:
1. Be Aware of What Is Already Included in the Application
We receive transcripts, test scores, and a full list of students’ extracurricular involvement. Do not feel like you need to repeat any of this information in your recommendation letter. What is helpful is when teachers put this information in context. For example, “Sally earned the highest grade on the biology midterm across all three sections.” “Henry’s score on the math section of the SAT is 100 points higher than the district average.” “Sharon’s B- at the quarter is not wholly indicative of her abilities as she was sick for two weeks.” “Billy’s commitment to stage crew is particularly commendable as he commutes two hours to-and-from school.” These types of comments provide helpful insight as to how your student is performing in relation to their peer group while also alerting us to any extenuating circumstances we should be aware of when evaluating their file.
2. Show, Don’t Tell
As the previous examples reveal, the more specific an example, the better. If a student exceeds expectations, tell me how. I once read a letter that explained how a student created a study guide for the AP Biology exam to be left for students in the grades below him, even though he didn’t actually take the test himself. This speaks much more to his character than merely telling me that he “has strong study skills” and is “kind to others.” A short anecdote reads much better in committee than a string of adjectives!
3. Anecdotes Should Be Brief and Relevant
That being said, anecdotes are most helpful when they are brief and relevant. Although the story about how ten-year-old Jimmy mowed his next-door neighbor’s lawn for a year is sweet, examples from the student’s time in high school tend to be more helpful in speaking to the person they will be in college. (We give the same advice to students as they prepare to write essays for college!) Similarly, we love to hear stories about specific projects that students completed, but we do not need the full backstory of the entire assignment. A couple sentences should do the trick. (All in all, a recommendation letter doesn’t need to exceed one page!)
4. Avoid Superlatives Unless You Genuinely Mean Them
This might sound like an obvious comment, but it’s worth pointing out. As territory managers, we read all of the applications from individual high schools. Therefore, when reading applications from one high school we typically come across teachers who are writing recommendations for multiple students in our applicant pool. If Sarah, Henry, and Abigail are all “the hardest working students you’ve ever encountered,” it is difficult for us to gauge their true strength in comparison to their classmates. This gets back to the show-don’t-tell point. Specific examples are a great way to showcase a student’s strengths and unique qualities.
5. Keep in Mind the Types of Programs Your Student is Interested In
Keep in mind the type of school or program your student is applying to. Are they applying to mostly small liberal arts colleges or larger research universities? Arts & Sciences or Engineering? Are they pursuing a specific program in the arts, for example? Admissions committees look for different qualities based on their specific program. For example, when evaluating engineering applicants we look for signs of teamwork, resilience, curiosity, and innovation. Incorporating examples of how your student exemplifies these characteristics can greatly benefit their file.
I will conclude by pointing out that we are not looking for any one type of student. In fact, we need a diversity of personalities to make our campus an enjoyable place to live and learn. Therefore, you should never feel pressured to paint students in a particular kind of way. We accept introverts and extroverts, leaders and team members, well-rounded students and specialists. We get a good grasp of these traits through the student’s own writing, but in hearing from their teachers and counselors we are able to confirm or expand our impressions of them, and create a fuller understanding of the student and community member we are evaluating.
I hope these tips will be of use as you begin to craft your letters. Happy writing!