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Tips for Writing College Letters of Recommendation

1. Be specific.  Your job is to paint a picture of the student as a learner and a person.  Make reference to past work, to student reading, to collaborative projects, to PBAT work and the writing/research/revision process, to moments of failure, bounce-back, realization.  Tell anecdotes from class, from outside of class.  Quote students.  Don't bother with reporting grades: they're on the transcript already.  Tell me instead about all of the things I'd want to know about a student which I can't learn from a transcript.  Admissions officers need to be able to make a case for individual students--admissions works by "committee" at most colleges.  If I'm an admissions officer, the easier you make it for me to imagine a student as human, present, complex--rather than as a stack of paper and a host of numbers--the easier it'll be for me to go to bat for the student in committee.

2. Consider setting aside time to interview students you are writing for, or together to go back over past work student has done in your class.

3. Do NOT worry about fully completing "Teacher Recommendation Forms" of any kind.  If you are writing a thoughtful and substantial letter, it's of way more value than the recommendation forms and their crazy checkboxes and grids.  If however, you feel like you really want to do the checkboxes for a particular student, feel free.  Just never in place of the actual letter.

4. You can begin work on a letter for a student as soon as they make the request.  They don't need to provide you with other materials or information about deadlines or instructions for submission: it's all in Naviance.  You may, however, want to push students to explain more clearly to you why they have chosen to ask you.  Knowing this can help you to write a better letter, and sometimes students will share something you weren't aware of.

5. Length matters.  Letters don't need to be dissertation-length, but a short letter implies that there is not a lot of interesting or positive stuff to say about the student, or that you don't know the student well.

6. Don't write a negative letter.  If you really feel like you can't write a letter that advocates for a student, then someone else should be writing for that student.  There is at least one teacher capable of writing a recommendation for every student.  Be careful, too, in writing about a student's flaws or weaknesses.  It's important to be honest, but you don't want to be damning.

7. Be sure to indicate your relationship to the student at the beginning of your letter.  If you want to offer serious superlatives, give specific context: e.g. "The most compelling student I've ever worked with during my 12 yrs teaching"; or "One of the best PBATs I've seen of the hundreds I've read" or "This PBAT was better than any papers I remember writing myself in college" etc.

8. Remember that teacher letters are one of the main windows colleges have on what we're doing at BCS.  When, in writing about a student, you can offer a picture of crew, internship, PBATs, expeditions or other specific work and projects, colleges will understand better what makes BCS special.  The more clear they are on that, the better outcomes our students will have in admissions.


Sample Teacher Letter One

January 26, 200

 

To Whom It May Concern:

 

I am delighted to write this letter of recommendation for Ms. G, whom I have had the pleasure of teaching for three of her four years in high school. G was in my Freshman and Junior English classes and is currently in my Senior English class. Over the years, I have come to know her quite well, both as a student and an individual. She is a very intelligent, thoughtful, kind-hearted young woman with strong convictions, a powerful voice, and a genuine love of learning.

 

G is a voracious reader of both classic and contemporary literature. She loves escaping to different places, cultures and time periods and, in particular, enjoys reading about characters who face some kind of internal struggle or identity crisis. Some books I remember her loving are The Color Purple, Of Mice and Men, Catcher in the Rye, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Esmerelda Santiago’s When I Was Puerto Rican and Almost a Woman, Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, and James McBride’s The Color of Water. She has read so many of the books in my class library that it has become increasingly difficult to make recommendations. I often single out books I think she might enjoy and offer them to her. Nine times out of ten, she will point to each book in my hands and say with a smile, “Already read that one. Read that one. And that one, too.” Sometimes, I am able to find something she hasn’t already read; other times she will simply go out and find a book on her own, either at the library or bookstore. She is completely self-motivated in this regard; in fact, I don’t think she could survive without books.

             

              Reading, for G, is not merely an escape but also a way of exploring human nature. She tries to understand what makes her characters tick and is extremely sensitive and empathetic toward them. When she speaks and writes about them, I can tell that she really tries to put herself in their shoes and see the world through their eyes. She hurts when they hurt, is infuriated when they suffer, becomes excited when they find ways of redeeming themselves, and feels crushed when they fall. In many ways, the stories G reads – and, specifically, their characters – are teachers for her. She carries them around, accessing them whenever she encounters an experience or feeling in her own life where they seem applicable or helpful. Even in class, G relates much of what she learns to the books she reads and often refers to something she has read to illustrate a point. I love how she understands, in a deep way, the fine line between fiction and reality.

 

In addition to reading, G loves writing. Above all, she loves writing poetry, which is fitting for her romantic spirit. As mentioned above, G is extremely sensitive and feels things very passionately. Sometimes she has a hard time dealing with the intensity of her own emotions, and I have often seen her turn to writing to explore and deal with what is going on inside her. Metaphor, imagery – and words in general – are her outlets for both creativity and catharsis. What’s more, G loves to get up in front of an audience and perform. Every year, she participates in the school-wide poetry slam, and one year she even advanced to the regional finals. Watching her perform is always exciting. She puts her entire being into her articulations of anger, heartbreak and angst, all the while exuding a sense of self-confidence and power that surfaces from a place deep within. It is this boldness of spirit that moves me most. In a few weeks, we will be participating in a ten week-long poetry and spoken word residency with the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and I have a feeling G is going to be one of the most enthusiastic participants and performers. I think she is going to love it.

 

G has been cultivating her voice in other ways, too. Last year, as a member of student government, she played an important role in speaking out against budget cuts that were taking place in the NYC public school system. She spoke as a student representative at a city-wide rally, energizing the crowd with her firm but respectful cries for justice and fairness for the underprivileged. Additionally, she helped form a feminist newsletter for the school along with a small group of students. This year, she is a member of the Senior Committee, which is a body of students that represents the interests of the senior class to the administration and organizes senior events and activities. And she also helped organized a girl’s group, which meets on a weekly basis to discuss personal issues and develop peer mediation skills.

 

More than being a good speaker and organizer, G is also an excellent listener. In class, she pays close attention, to both me and her classmates, before responding and sharing her own ideas. Additionally, I have always been impressed by her openness to constructive criticism when it comes to her work. While she has great potential as a writer, sometimes she needs support in developing her ideas, particularly when it comes to expository writing. In our one-on-one conferences, she listens very attentively, taking notes, and afterward makes a concerted effort to incorporate whatever revisions we discuss.

 

G is a delightful young woman of integrity who possesses the qualities of a leader and an activist. As she continues to learn to trust herself and embrace her storehouse of inner strength, she will become even more successful in her endeavors. She is the kind of person who believes she can make a difference – and she will. I will miss her very much when she graduates and leaves our school. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me by phone, at     or by e-mail, at @hotmail.com.

 

Sincerely,

 

 

 

M S

English Teacher


Sample Letter Two


December 25, 200

 

To Whom It May Concern:

 

It is with great pleasure that I recommend J to your university program.  Over the past three semesters, I have been wowed by J’s intellectual and emotional maturity, and am confident that she will apply this maturity to her experience in a post-secondary environment.

 

I first met J in her junior year; she immediately sat in the front row of my second period United States History and Government course and began asking questions about the material. J immediately took leadership in the classroom, facilitating discussions and aiding her peers with higher-level texts. Throughout the year, her tenacity for learning was unmatched among her classmates.   

 

In every history course at     , we use a learning strategy called “seminar” to encourage students to engage in informed discussion regarding essential questions posed during each unit.  J’s performance in the first seminar during her junior year is indicative of her level of sophistication; she earned a 97 on her essay, and ended facilitating our discussion regarding whether the federal government should limit individual liberties in the interest of national security.  She easily commands respect from her peers, and uses it to encourage critical dialogue about current events issues.

 

J has continued this tenacity for learning in Brooklyn History, the senior level history course that allows students to explore local governance through case studies of urban trends in local neighborhoods.  In this course, we explore two essential questions: (1) What is really the greater good, and what is worth sacrificing in that name; and (2) What is worth preserving and how should it be preserved?  Students explore issues of gentrification, eminent domain, and historic preservation through textual analysis, digital photography, and oral testimony.  Though J admittedly prefers the structure of her US History course to that of Brooklyn History, she, nevertheless, excels.  She, along with three group-mates, crafted a superb presentation on Harry Tarzian, a local hardware business owner and longtime resident of Park Slope.  Through his oral testimony, J and her group were able to discern many of the trends that have affected Park Slope over the past 75 years, and use these as a springboard for discussion of trends that are occurring in their own neighborhoods.  Flatbush, where J resides, is, itself, undergoing significant gentrification and development, allowing her to make useful historic parallels that inform her opinions regarding issues affecting her local community.

 

In addition to her academic accomplishments, J’s personal qualities contribute greatly to the social dynamic in the senior class.  J attends weekly “girls’ group” meetings with her peers in which female students discuss their academic and personal issues.  Though initially facilitated by the guidance counselor and me, the girls group has become a means for the students, themselves, to provide each other with a listening ear and useful advice.  J has also taken an active role in the senior committee, attending regular meetings and helping organize the first annual Winter Wonderland for the senior class.  Her participation this year has convinced me that she will be an excellent asset to any university community.

 

J has impressed me with her eloquence, her ability to critically think, and her drive.  Therefore, it is clear to me that a young woman like Ms.  would be a valuable asset to any university campus.  I wholeheartedly recommend her for admission to your school.

 

Sincerely,

 

 

J R

 


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