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5 Tips On Writing Better Recommendation Letters

5 Tips On Writing Better Recommendation Letters

Robert Wilder | Teaching

Each year, teachers are asked to write countless letters recommending their students to colleges and universities all over the United States and abroad. While this labor of love is not on the advertised list of job requirements for a teacher, a good recommendation letter can really help an application get noticed by the folks in the admission office. Here are just a few hints that might tip the endgame from “reject” to “accept”.

1. Do Your Homework

Odds are you know how Julian fared in your World History course and you may even recall his red-letter genealogy project and the spicy section on polygamy in his family history, but maybe you’ve forgotten that he’s into falconry or raised $1700 for Multiple Sclerosis. Have each student prepare a resume or fill out an activity questionnaire that includes awards, jobs, extracurriculars, travel, and anything else that might help you round out your recommendation. Keep a pad of post-it notes handy as you teach so you can jot down any memorable moments for future recommendations.

2. Be Honest

My philosophy is that every kid deserves a future so I’ll write recommendations as long as I have something positive to say. Once in a while, a student will come to me and ask for a rec and I’ll have to turn him down because we had an especially difficult time together, and I don’t think I can write a good one. I’ll tell him that he needs to work hard in his current classes and make an effort to connect with his teachers and then ask one of them. There may be hard feelings after such honesty, but I escape having to write a vague letter with lots of white space and he may fare better elsewhere. And if I believe I can write a positive note for a student my colleague passes on, I’ll happily take that bullet.

3. Tell a Story

Imagine you are an admissions officer pouring over hundreds of recommendations. What would you want to read? What would make the kid you are professorially pimping memorable in the midst of all those other spit-polished high school seniors? Before I begin writing any letter, I see myself as a storyteller trying to find the right (and unforgettable) story to tell about the kid. I believe that everyone has myriad stories that would make us all sit up and listen; the key is finding the correct one. It could be that moment in class when Kathy had an epiphany about materialism while discussing Thoreau. It could also be some kindness you witnessed in the hallway between classes. Anything to avoid the painful boilerplate about Jimmy sitting in the front row and raising his hand. Once you have that story, you can weave in the fact that he aced all your quizzes, has a strong aptitude for geometric shapes, or won the Williams College Book Award. If you are not a natural storyteller or the type of teacher who can’t tell a joke to save his life, I’d recommend taking a course on writing personal narrative or telling stories. Remember that this one letter can immediately impact your student’s future and shaping a strong narrative might help you keep your current students a bit more entertained (and awake).

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