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Writing Letters of Recommendation for College

By Nadyja Von Ebers on June 28, 2021 In college admissions

If you teach high schoolers, especially seniors (or rising seniors), at least a few of them (and maybe many of them!) will ask you for a letter of recommendation for college.  And as you're probably aware, writing meaningful letters on top of your already full workload can be quite time-consuming. That's why we want to offer you a few helpful guidelines that will help you write the best letters possible without drowning in too much work. 

Also, please feel free to direct your students to this piece on how to ask for a letter of recommendation, which also comes with a downloadable student information form.

writing letters of recommendation for college

Communicate Expectations and Boundaries 

First things first: before any students even request a letter of recommendation from you, set and communicate your boundaries about letter-writing in class, on your syllabus, or similar. 

For example, consider the following parameters:

  • How much notice do you need to write a letter before its official due date? Set and stick to this timeline.
  • How would you like the request for a letter of recommendation to be made? By email? In-person?
  • How quickly can you turn around a letter of rec? Will you make exceptions for last-minute requests under any circumstances?
  • Are you willing to write different versions of the letter for various colleges or will you only write one "universal" version that can be used for each?
  • What information will you need from your students when they ask you for a letter?

Making your expectations clear will help your students be more proactive, which in turn, will give you more time and energy to work on thoughtful letters.

Decide if You Can Write a Letter of Rec

Next, when a student approaches you and asks for a letter of recommendation, reflect on whether or not you are really the best person to write one. Perhaps you won't even have to think about it and will be more than happy to write one. But other times, the request may give you pause, either because you don't know the student very well or because the student did not perform well in your class. 

If you don't feel that you can write an honest letter that will legitimately strengthen the student's chance of getting into college, be upfront about it. Remember that the goal of the letter is to help the student get accepted, and, if you can't genuinely speak to their strengths in a particular area, you won't be helping them.  In this case, you can gently suggest that another teacher, coach, or counselor may be a better fit.

Should you write a letter of recommendation for your student?

If you're on the fence, try to schedule a few minutes to chat with the student. During this time, ask them what they see as their greatest strengths and why they think you're a good contender to write a letter. You may be surprised about the level of impact you've had on them or what they learned in your class, making you more confident in your ability to write a strong letter for them.

Have a Student Fact Sheet Ready to Go 

This tip will save you tons of time and will also help empower your students to focus on their strengths, goals, and future plans. 

Prepare some type of student information form or template to give any student who asks you for a letter of rec. You can even give these out at the beginning of the year/semester or keep them in a public place in your classroom. 

Here is a good example of a student fact sheet (and please feel free to use it!), but you can certainly create and tailor your own. 

student fact sheet for letters of recommendation

Basically, the idea is to collect as much information as possible from the student: the colleges they plan to apply to, their major of choice, what they learned in your course, what they view as their greatest strengths, etc. This will help jog your memory about their performance in your class and help you write a thorough letter that paints a vivid and accurate picture of who they are and why they're well-suited for the college or program of their choice. 

Follow the Guidelines

If you do feel good about writing a letter of rec and agree to it, make sure you follow the college(s) guidelines to a tee. Failure to do so could result in an incomplete application and cost the student their admission. 

You can include a section on your student fact sheet asking for the schools' guidelines, or you can ask for these separately. Some key information you'll want to ask for is:

  • What is the FINAL deadline for letters? (And of course, leave yourself enough time in case of tech problems or delays with snail mail.)
  • How should the letter be submitted? Will it be uploaded via a school-specific portal? Through the Common App? Sent via postal or courier services as a hard copy?
  • What contact information are you required to include?
  • Is the letter submitted confidentially (meaning the student can't see what you wrote)? Will you provide an electronic signature or a sealed envelope?
  • Is there a specific prompt for the letter, or is it just a general recommendation? If a college asks specific questions, try to stay on topic and address them exactly as they are asked. 

Be Honest and Specific 

In the letter you compose, make sure to speak earnestly about the student and as specifically as possible. Avoid clichés and platitudes that could be said about any student in favor of specific examples of ways that they demonstrate certain traits or values. If possible, discuss particularly memorable projects, assignments, or accomplishments that make the student stand out.

And, if you know the student well enough to do so, try to speak to their character as well. Beyond academic success, is this individual an upstanding citizen of the world? A natural collaborator? An empath? An excellent communicator? A self-advocate? How so? In what ways will their character be a welcome addition at the schools to which they're applying?

Again, providing a thorough student fact sheet will help you be as specific as possible during the writing process!

what to say in a letter of recommendation

Focus on Positives, Progress, and Potential

It may sound obvious, but it's important to focus on a student's strengths and most positive qualities, specifically ones that will serve them well at the college level or in a particular field of study. 

That said, you can definitely also speak to a student's growth or progress, especially if you taught them for a longer period of time. The same goes for speaking to their potential: colleges want to see that a student can rise to the full spectrum of challenges ahead of them. How has this student become more mature? Has their academic trajectory and improvement been particularly impressive? In what ways are you confident that they will continue evolving into a superlative college student?

A Final Word About Letters of Recommendation 

Writing letters of rec can be a little daunting, so try to pace yourself and leave enough time to personalize each one. Your words have a potentially enormous impact on your students' futures, especially when it comes to highly competitive colleges. A particular detail or remark of yours could even be the deciding factor in a super close admissions process! It's an honor to write letters of recommendation for students you believe in, and following these guidelines will help ensure a smooth and enjoyable process. 

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