George Lucas Educational Foundation

Writing the "Dreaded" Letters of Recommendation

Writing the "Dreaded" Letters of Recommendation

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You have stacks of papers to grade, two parent conferences this week, a school improvement report to file, and (fill-in-the-blank here with your additional extra-curricular, home, and life responsibilities). You do not think that you can do one more thing this week, but then a student catches you in the hall and says, “Could you write me a letter of recommendation? I need it by Friday.” Instead of reacting on your first instinct to shout, “No!” and run in the opposite direction, have a few guidelines in place to make this process less painful for you and the student (but mainly you).  

Letter of recommendation request form. Require students to provide you with a document that includes their full name, GPA, class rank, honors and awards, clubs and activities, and plans for next year. You can also request a section on volunteer work, hobbies, SAT scores, current schedule, and anything else you deem appropriate. Post these requirements in your room and tell students that you will not write a letter without this information. Consider making this required homework in a senior English class, so it can be provided to all teachers.

Have a timeline. Put a timeline in place. For example, ask students to turn in the request forms and allow two weeks to write the initial letters of recommendation. 

Create a template. Have a document in place with all of the correct spacing, heading, closing, and a generic first paragraph. Most scholarship and admission committees want to know who the recommender is and in what capacity and how long he or she has known the applicant. Some students want you to write a letter because you were their teacher, their coach, their student council sponsor, or all of the above. Consider having a template in place for the variety of letters you make be asked to write.

Think outside of the box. Really think about what makes this student special. Does she work a 25 hour a week part time job? Does he help his little brothers with homework each night? Will she be the first in her family to go to college? Also, writing about a student’s potential is a great way to highlight the positive characteristics of a student with less than stellar grades. 

Anecdotal paragraph. Try to write a story-telling paragraph about each student. This is going to be the part that makes this letter stand out to a committee.  Here are some ideas:

  • Highlight the growth that you have seen in him
  • Write about the first time you met her and your impression
  • Write about an amazing project or speech the student gave

Be honest. If you do not feel comfortable writing a positive letter of recommendation for a student, tell him so. If he insists that he wants it to be from you, then you have given him fair warning.

Student proofreading. Have students proofread their own letters particularly looking for accuracy about the clubs and activities they are in and the awards that they have received. No one knows this information better than them. Students will often catch a small mistake in the letter, but more importantly, it also gives them a chance to really feel special before the letter is sent off.

Ask for supplies. If budgets are tight, it is not outside the realm of appropriateness to ask students to provide paper and envelopes for these letters of recommendation.  Throughout the course of a year, some students will ask for 40 or more copies of this letter. However, it is inappropriate to ask for cash, check, or money order in exchange for your coveted letter of recommendation.    

Create a pdf. Create a pdf of the finished product and email it to the student and his/her parents. This way the student can print as many copies as needed and bring them in for you to sign (using his own ink and paper). This also gives the student the capability to upload or email the document as needed without being able to manipulate it in any way.  Many admissions and scholarship sites will still require you to upload the document yourself, but this will still save you some time.  

Be grateful. That’s right, be grateful that this student has asked you write this letter.  Even if you do not always feel the same way, this student feels that he has a close enough relationship with you to ask you to help determine if they get into a college or receive a scholarship. Most students will have 25+ teachers in their high school years, so be grateful that you made the cut.

Beware of the double-edged sword. By following these guidelines, you will become known as the teacher that writes the best letters of recommendation, which means that you will have to write more of them. However, when you get nominated for a fabulous teaching award, remember that you too will need letters of recommendation, which may come from some of your students. 


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Comments (6) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Katie Schellenberg, JD, MA's picture
Katie Schellenberg, JD, MA
Advocate, Lawyer, Teacher and Founder of Beyond Tutoring

What an amazingly comprehensive list of recommendations for letters of rec. This is a good reminder (but as you pointed out can be a double-edged sword of being known as the best letter writer).

Adrian Nester's picture
Adrian Nester
AP Language and Literature instructor in Virginia

Yes, I am feeling that double-edged sword right now with three new requests given to me this morning before 9 AM! I have to remind myself that it is privilege (and really a compliment) to be asked. Thanks for reading and commenting.

Charles A. Swanson's picture
Charles A. Swanson
teacher, pastor, poet

Great suggestions for a well-written letter of recommendation. You give some ideas that would be excellent for a busy teacher to follow. I whole-heartedly agree that giving the letter to the student himself is a great strategy. To do so treats the student with respect and compassion. Plus, as you say, it gives a student the responsibility of proofreading. Such a responsibility not only helps her control her own destiny, but also re-inforces the value of proofreading on all important documents. Thanks!

Adrian Nester's picture
Adrian Nester
AP Language and Literature instructor in Virginia

I appreciate the kind words from someone I so respect! Thanks!

Christina Gil's picture
Christina Gil
Former Classroom Teacher, Current Homeschooler and Ecovillager

These are all great suggestions. I especially like the idea of the anecdotal paragraph.
For this reason, I always ask students to give me examples of everything they want me to say about them. I might not remember how hard they worked to revise the third paragraph of their essay last October, but they will.
My other suggestion is to require that students write a letter about themselves first--in the least, they see how difficult it is to write a letter, and at best, I have taken entire phrases and passages from students' letters.

Adrian Nester's picture
Adrian Nester
AP Language and Literature instructor in Virginia

Yes, that is certainly putting the responsibility firmly on their shoulders. Great suggestion. Thanks for reading and commenting.

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