Teaching Strategies

Tips for Writing Strong Letters of Recommendation

Use personal narratives to write authentic, effective, and compelling recommendation letters. 

June 14, 2019
John Schnobrich / Unsplash

Letters of recommendation are an important part of the college application process, and I take seriously requests to write these letters. A good letter conveys a student’s character and abilities to admission officers and potential employers. A few simple guidelines can make the letter-writing process run smoothly. 

Decide on the Process

Before agreeing to write a letter, think about whether you are a good fit to write on a student’s behalf. If I feel a letter from me would be critical, I urge a student to ask another teacher. 

Consider the way a student asks for the letter. I prefer face-to-face interactions about recommendation requests, which show maturity and appreciation for my time and energy. 

One could also consider when a student makes the request. Writing a quality letter requires ample time for consideration, reflection, and composition. I hesitate when students ask me late in the process because it may demonstrate a lack of seriousness on their part. 

Offer Honest Praise

When it comes to writing letters of recommendation, first and foremost, offer honest praise. Effusive letters about every student you write for lessens your credibility as an honest and fair evaluator. At the same time, refrain from including anything negative. Instead, I focus on identifying praiseworthy characteristics, such as a student’s work ethic, intrinsic motivation, and leadership qualities. From there, I provide specific examples of how the student exemplifies laudable characteristics to achieve success.

Before I begin my formal writing, I jot down potential ideas to brainstorm. I also think about what to write when I’m not at my desk. Considering a student’s strengths while running or meditating provides an opportunity to brainstorm. I also review an individual's past homework and projects.

In writing the letter, it is important to mention a student’s academic prowess—especially if the student excels in a certain field—even though this information is likely included in other application materials. I connect the students’ work ethic and character to their overall academic success. For example, a student who finds time to meet independently with a teacher to improve mastery shows initiative beyond his or her grades. 

Look for ways to highlight how students who faced serious challenges—like a learning disability, illness, disruption at home, or loss—prevailed. For example, I wrote about a junior I taught in history and coached in cross country who suffered a seizure at the championship race. Upon awakening from unconsciousness in a state of complete delirium, he could only mumble a few words about not letting his teammates down. After I had traveled with him in the ambulance to the hospital, as he regained awareness, he also told me that he would attend school the next day— if just for my class—to support his peers in a graded history debate. He cared deeply about not disappointing those depending on him.

Using a specific narrative about the way a student overcame adversity not only makes the letter memorable but highlights key attributes of the applicant. 

Be Original 

Over the years, admissions officers have read letters from me about numerous students. They can detect a cookie-cutter submission or duplicate letters that simply substitute student names. 

Make letters unique by writing about unique experiences with students. Keeping notes and comments throughout the year about an individual’s work over time helps me to recall specific details for the letter. Since I keep an online record of student work, I can readily refer to areas where they excelled and, whenever appropriate, how they overcame challenges. 

Ask students why they want you to write on their behalf. When I do so, many refer to how something I said, did, or assigned encouraged them to think differently. This exercise helps me recall a specific moment when the student experienced a profound transformation. 

Visualization can be a powerful tool for letter writing. “As you compose your letter, try to visualize the reader,” my mentor told me. “That admissions officer will be reading several hundred letters like yours this week, all of them describing barely distinguishable, highly qualified applicants. Seek and find brief but memorable ways of bringing your applicant to life.”

Write Clearly 

Nothing signals apathy more than poorly written letters. Spelling and grammar matter. Commit to making your letters professional. If writing is a challenge, ask a colleague or friend to review your letters. Beyond catching typos, they can alert you if something doesn’t make sense. 

Avoid overusing adjectives, which can come across as superfluous. Instead, stick to concrete observations that show, rather than tell, a student’s potential.  

In return for writing a letter, I ask students to keep me apprised of their college acceptance news. This spring, the outgoing editor of the online student newspaper that I advise told me how admissions officers praised her work on the award-winning publication. With sincere appreciation, this recent graduate thanked me not only for writing on her behalf, but also for helping her develop into a lifelong learner, who is now headed to her first-choice school.

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