Are you wondering how to write a recommendation letter for students? Perhaps you’ve written one in the past, but it’s been awhile, or maybe you’ve never composed a recommendation letter, but you have an idea that you just want to verify. Keep reading for some quick tips to help make your letter-writing experience more efficient and genuine.
Welcome to “This or That,” a monthly chat where the authors of Reading and Writing Haven and Language Arts Classroom cover different ways of approaching common decisions in the ELA classroom.
Nothing’s worse than having a student come ask you for a letter of recommendation two days before he or she needs it. In the past, I’ve played the sentimental, caring teacher who subjects herself to an extra-long night of work just to make sure I get that letter done. Admirable? No. I shouldn’t do that, and neither should anyone else. As a young teacher, I wasn’t expecting this issue; therefore, I didn’t have any policies in place. Make sure you are clear with students regarding:
- how much notice you need to complete the letter.
- the specific details you need to write accurately about their involvement in school.
- what college or program information they need to supply you with in order to write it.
PREPARING TO WRITE A LETTER OF RECOMMENDATION
When preparing to draft your letter, speak the truth.
People who read letters of recommendation generally have read thousands of them. Just like an English teacher who can detect plagiarism without a software system, admissions workers or prospective employers can detect “copy and paste” letters in a heartbeat. If you commit to writing a student a letter of recommendation, write one from the heart, but don’t over-exaggerate the facts:
- NO: Jeremy is the best student I’ve ever taught during my twenty-year tenure. He always earns 100% on every assignment, and he’s the perfect role model for his classmates.
- YES: Jeremy has been a true joy to have in class. I’ll always remember him for his compassionate demeanor and diligent work ethic. Not only does Jeremy do his best to complete all of his assignments on time and well, but also he frequently reaches out to his classmates and assists them when they are struggling with lesson content.
Remember that the letter reflects back on you.
If you feel you can’t recommend a student in good conscience, the best course of action is to tell them to find someone else. In all of my years of teaching, I’ve only had to do this a few times. Is it awkward? Absolutely – for me, anyway. Still, when you write a letter of recommendation, it ultimately is a testimony to your discernment abilities.
Give students a break.
It can be easy to judge a student’s character based upon one bad decision. For instance, I had a student who plagiarized a poem in one of my classes. He denied it until I finally chased him far enough down the rabbit hole that he had to admit the truth. Could I have judged him and refused to write him a college recommendation letter? Sure, but every student deserves a second chance. This student was sorry, and he had learned from the mistake. I was able to write his letter of recommendation because I was able to see that the mistake was actually a character-building event in his life. No one is perfect.
Use specific examples.
If you plan to say that Leon has leadership skills, make sure to provide specific examples of his ability to lead in the classroom, on the court or field, or in whatever context you know him. Is Taylor creative? How so? Does Randy set a high standard for the class? Talk about the time he gave everyone a pep talk about being respectful and having a good attitude despite the new policies your school had recently adopted.
Write about a student’s potential.
If you’ve been asked to write a recommendation letter for a student who doesn’t always meet class expectations, write about how that student has grown and the efforts he or she is making to improve.
- Example: Jordan has shown a desire to grow and improve by consistently asking for feedback and taking constructive criticism well. Every time I grade one of Jordan’s essays, he makes the recommended changes and asks for a conference to reflect upon what he learned through the revision process.
LETTER OF RECOMMENDATION CONTENTS
INTRODUCTION / PARAGRAPH 1
Of course, every letter of recommendation should have an opening salutation. I generally begin my letters with “Dear Admissions Committee” or someone’s specific name if the student supplies that information. The first paragraph, then, is when I establish my connection with the student.
- Example: I have had the pleasure of teaching Ariana in her 12th grade dual credit composition class this year. Ariana has also played on my varsity volleyball team for two years. During that time, she has impressed me with her dedication, insight, leadership skills, and articulation abilities – both written and spoken.
PARAGRAPHS 2 (and 3 – IF NECESSARY)
The second paragraph is where I like to write about the student’s specific qualifications for the position, club, or college. Bringing in specific examples makes the recommendation more genuine.
- Paragraph 2: As a member of the Elkwood High varsity volleyball team, Ariana led her team both verbally and nonverbally. Her teammates voted Ariana captain because they recognized her ability to lead. Ariana cheered for her teammates from the sidelines when she wasn’t on the court. She encouraged her teammates during play, and she made a conscious effort to keep a smile on her face – even when the team was losing. Ariana’s teammates looked to her for emotional balance in the middle of intense games.
- Paragraph 3: In the classroom, Ariana demonstrated her ability to articulate thoughts both in writing and speaking. Ariana sought feedback from me often when writing research papers, and she took constructive criticism as an opportunity for growth. Viewing Ariana as an intelligent, capable leader, her classmates would often ask to partner with her or work with her for projects. While many students gravitate toward the same friends for every assignment, Ariana has been open to working with many students in our English class. Ariana has shown professionalism by abiding by the school’s dress code, responsibility by bringing her supplies and homework to class consistently, and empathy by reaching out to peers who are confused or isolated.
The last paragraph of the letter is your opportunity to summarize why you are recommending the student and to provide your contact information.
- Example: Without hesitation, I recommend Ariana for admission to your university. She would be a wonderful asset – both in academics and extracurriculars. I’m certain that Ariana will continue to lead her peers and make a difference in our world. Not every high school student asks for extra conferences with the teacher to improve upon writing skills. Likewise, not every high school student is voted leader of her athletic team, or is respectful, compassionate, and driven. Not every high school student is Ariana. Please feel free to contact me at _________ with any further questions.
Of course, close with “Sincerely,” “My Best,” or something equally formal and polite. Follow with your name and title.
I never copy and paste an entire letter of recommendation and then replace students’ names; it’s not fair to the student. However, I do use the same general template every time I compose a recommendation. Spend some time brainstorming and reflecting as you write your heart-felt letters for the students who admire you enough to ask you to recommend them for the next step in their bright futures.
Lauralee from Language Arts Classroom has shared her thoughts about writing a letter of recommendation for students in a sister post. Hop on over to her blog to read more about how you can make the recommendation letter meaningful for the student and efficient for the teacher (that’s you).