For those teachers working on letters of recommendation, here are five tips to help you help your students.
1. Just tell the truth.
It's not your job (and it's not in your student's best interest) to inflate a kid's qualifications. Attempts to do so usually lead to vague generalities like calling a student "diligent and determined." Instead, just tell the truth. If a kid is a solid "B" student who could do better with a little more effort, say so. If the student is terrible at chemistry but you admire his pluck and relentless effort, say so. You're not a publicist spinning everything as a positive. You're a teacher sharing your experiences with this student in your classroom.
2. Focus on your experience with the student in class.
Colleges ask for teacher letters of recommendation because you have a unique perspective: you've taught this student in class. Does he ask intelligent questions? Will you always remember his in-class presentation on Steinbeck? Did he overcome a slow start to finish strong last semester? That's what colleges need you to tell them. Your letter is the only place on an application where those tales can be told. So don't veer off topic and write about the fact that you work as this student's club advisor, that you know his family, or that he's involved in many activities on campus. Keep the focus on your experience with the student in class.
3. Be as specific as possible.
Generalities suck the life out of a letter of recommendation; details add oomph. So follow the advice of every good English teacher: use specific examples. Consider the difference between: "Joe is pleasant and affable in class" and "Joe is the rare student who seems genuinely happy to discuss Chaucer."
4. Don't write more than necessary.
It would be hard to find a college admissions officer who said, "I just wish I had more to read." Colleges are inundated with material at this time of year, so don't stretch a letter to two pages when one page will do. The most effective letters are focused descriptions with specific examples, not tall tales that ramble on for longer than necessary. I've seen letters as short as two or three paragraphs that were specific enough to get the job done. Say what you have to say; then land the plane.
5. For weaker students, build on the idea of potential.
It's not hard to find specific, positive examples about the best student in class. But for the student who struggles, focus on those instances where you saw flashes of potential. It might be a performance on one test or project, a willingness to keep trying, or an improvement in the student's participation. Remember, the college has the transcript, so it's not as if you'll be the source that paints the student as an underachiever. Find and focus on the bright spots.