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13 Tips For Writing College Recommendations That Rock

September is both the start of the school year and the beginning of the college application process.

We start our students early, asking them to draft their essays and prepare resumes by the end of their junior years. The guidance counselor also tells them to start asking for college recommendations; the earlier the better, he says.

So students have been asking me since June.

It's both an honor and a responsibility when a student asks me to write a recommendation for them. When I have a great relationship with the student it's a no-brainer. 

"Of course," I say. "When do you need it by? Is there a particular program you're applying to that I should tailor the recommendation for?"

Sometimes I ask students to write me an email, officially asking and telling me why I'm the teaching they feel is the best person to write their recommendations. It gives me a sense of what they think our relationship is and why they feel I can do a good job. 

If I don't know the student well enough in my opinion but have negative things to say, I'll also ask for a resume, so I have some specifics to add that will make it more substantial.

Relationships aside, I have a reputation for writing good recommendations because I've been teaching seniors for a long time and since I work at a small school, most of my seniors have been in my class before their senior year, some for many years.

Writing recommendations isn't always easy though. You have to be honest and convey the student's best attributes without making it read like a template.

Here are some tips for writing great recommendations:

  1. Think before you respond to a student who asks. If you don't immediately have something great to convey, it may not be a good idea to write the recommendation. Remember, it's okay to say no because you have to be comfortable saying whatever you're going to write and if what you'd write isn't going to help them, then it's best to decline. You could just say, "I don't think I'm the best person to write one for you." Maybe even suggest someone else.

  2. Once you decide that you will write one, always start your letter with a salutation like "Dear Admissions Officer." 

  3. In the first short paragraph, introduce the student you are writing on behalf of using his/her full name and why you recommend them. For candidates that I feel are strong, I use additional adjectives like, "I strongly recommend _____ for your program because of her diligence and creativity."

  4. Make sure to have a thesaurus handy or a list of positive adjectives and adverbs that you can readily pull from. Many times there will be an accompanying sheet or form with online where you need to describe the student in 3 words, so it's good to have a bunch always on the tip of your tongue.

  5. After introductions, it's good to share in what context you know the student and share a specific anecdote that shows the student's talents. Showing rather than just telling is always more effective in writing. So whatever words you used to describe the student in the first paragraph, have a story that illustrates them next.

  6. If I have a special relationship with the student and I know personal things that they have had to endure, I make sure to add those as well. This piece is I think shares another dynamic element that perhaps a college essay or transcript doesn't add.

  7. Remember we are just one piece of their college application puzzle, so we're trying to add depth to what they have already shared.

  8. If the student is applying for a particular program like journalism or nursing, try to play up the skills and talents they have that would suit that program. For example, if I have a newspaper student applying to a journalism program, I make sure to talk about his/her leadership skills in the newspaper class and specific talents they have that would make them an asset for this school to acquire.

  9. It's a good idea to have information about the student both in a class you may have taught him/her in and also in some kind of extracurricular situation as well. Showing the student in different settings is a good way to demonstrate different qualities that would make them a great candidate.

  10. End your letter once again repeating the student's full name, and adding that you feel they would be an asset to the particular school program. 

  11. Don't forget to add your contact information and say, "if you have any questions about this letter, please feel free to contact me at (either an email or phone number)."

  12. Then sign the letter with your most official title "Starr Sackstein, Nationally Board Certified Teacher, World Journalism Prep School"

  13. Be honest and authentic. This comes through in the letter if you are genuinely invested in the child. Like I said at the beginning if you don't have anything nice to say, you shouldn't write the letter.

College recommendations are extremely important for students and they only get up to 3.

Sometimes they don't make the best choices and a generic letter won't help them. If you feel you can't write something complimentary, then decline. It's better you do that than have to lie or worse, say the truth and hurt the student.

What are your tips for writing great college recommendation letters? Please share

*This post originally ran on my Education Week Teacher blog in August 2015.


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