For teachers in the throes of recommendation-writing, it's sometimes hard to know what colleges are looking for and how you can best help your students. Here are a few tips:
1. Keep the focus on academics.
Colleges ask students to submit letters from teachers to get a glimpse at what this student is like in the classroom. Give colleges that glimpse. Does the student seem genuinely interested in the material? Does she ask questions? Do you and the other students enjoy having her in class? What are some examples of the student’s best work or contributions that you can recall? What do you think the student will be like in a college classroom? Those are the questions colleges are hoping you can help them answer, not whether or not the student is involved on campus or well-liked by her peers.
2. Be honest.
Yes, you want your letters to be positive and actually help a student’s chances of admission. But that doesn’t mean you should lavish undeserved praise, or even worse, rely on positive generalities rather than admit a student’s shortcomings. Remember, the more honest you are, the more likely the reader will be to believe you. If a student earned B’s both semesters in your class, she’s obviously not the top student in the course. And giving faint praise like this won’t be helpful:
“Kristen showed consistent effort in my class and was always polite and respectful. In addition, her lab work was always completed on time, and she worked well with her assigned lab partners.”
But what if you were honest and said,
“I think Kristen could be an ‘A’ student in chemistry if she wanted to be. But I can tell that chemistry just isn’t what lights her up. As a chemistry teacher, I’ve accepted that it’s the rare student who loves the periodic table as much as I do, and I’ve learned to appreciate the kids who still bring me a good attitude and a respectful effort in spite of their lack of attraction to chemistry. Kristen is one of those kids.”
I’m more likely to believe that teacher, and to like that student, in the second example.
3. Be specific.
Use examples to illustrate your points. It’s much more effective to say, “William is one of the few students who stops by after class to just talk to me about math,” than it is to say, “William shows a sincere interest in math.” Even if the example you’re sharing was one of the rare bright spots for this student in your course, share it. You don’t have to give examples that represent the entirety of the student’s work. Instead, you can build on the idea of potential or bright spots by relying on specific examples.
4. Don’t be afraid to be brief.
You would likely never hear a college admissions officer say, “I just wish I had more to read in this job!” It’s not necessary to ramble on for two pages if you can honestly and specifically recommend a student in just a few paragraphs. If you have more to say, say it. But don’t write more just to fill the space.
5. Be clear.
The most important thing you can do in a letter of recommendation is be clear. Don’t allow length, flowery language or faint praise to make the reader have to translate what you mean. When a teacher says something like, “I’m sure that the right college will provide a wonderful environment for Jenna to grow and mature so that she may realize her potential,” what are you actually saying? Are you saying she’s not mature now? Are you saying she’s not realizing her potential now? Or are you saying that she’s uniquely suited for the college environment? Be clear. Come right out and say it. Following all four of the tips above will help you to do this.