Writing Your First College Recommendation Letter

Every fall, a similar scene plays out at high schools across the nation. A senior approaches a teacher and says, “Mr. [Insert Name Here], you were my favorite teacher last year. I was wondering if…” 

If you don’t know the next words out of the student’s mouth, that means no student has ever asked you to write a college recommendation letter. There’s a lot to know about writing a good letter. By the end of this article, you’ll have a grasp on the basics, and possess resources that will help you on your letter-writing journey. 

Before Agreeing

Whether you announce it at the beginning of the year, or on a case-by-case basis, it’s good to have a policy regarding recommendation letters. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Set a minimum time frame for turnaround. You have a lot of other responsibilities, after all, and it would be unfair to you and the student to write a rushed letter. In my experience, two weeks is a good minimum turnaround time on a recommendation letter. If you need more time, inform all students at the beginning of the year.   
  • If you don’t believe you could write a fair recommendation letter, let the student know. What this boils down to is, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” And yes, there will be some students where this statement applies.

How the Student Can Help You

Even if the student is/was your star pupil, your memories might be a little fuzzy around the edges. This is common for high school teachers, who teach 100+ students every day. Yet there are a few tricks you can use to make the process easier.

  • Once you agree to write a college recommendation letter, ask the student for a short resume containing his or her grades/extra-curricular activities/honors/etc. Having this document will not only jog your memory, but also allow you to drop some extra goodies into your letter.
    • One last thing: the student should also include why he or she wants to attend this particular college. You’ll see why in a bit.
  • There may be other information the student provides you. For example, most college recommendation letters are now submitted online. In that case, it’s likely that the college will email you with a link to submit your letter.

How Other Teachers Can Help You

If this is your first college recommendation letter, more experienced teachers can help you in two ways. The first way is to provide solid advice regarding recommendation letters. Some teachers may even have templates or examples they are willing to share.

The second thing other teachers can do is provide valuable information about the student. If the information is good, it’s a great opportunity to add My colleagues speak highly of… in your letter. College admissions counselors love that stuff.

Writing the Letter

Sitting down to write the letter, you need to put yourself in the shoes of a college admissions counselor. First of all, expect that a college admissions counselor will spend less time reading your letter than the student’s essays. That being said, here’s a few tricks make your letter shine:

  • Start with your relationship with the student. Make your introduction brief, but inform the reader how you know the student. If you tutor the student or lead an extracurricular activity in which the student participates, include that, too.
  • Discuss the student’s strengths. After all, isn’t this the point of the letter? Start with the student’s strengths in the class(es) you taught him or her. Only after that, (in a different paragraph) describe the more general strengths the student provided you on his or her resume.
  • Discuss why the student and the college are a match made in Heaven. Okay, maybe not a match made in Heaven, but a great match, nonetheless. This section is the reason why you asked the student why he or she wants to attend this particular college. Using the student’s reasons as a foundation, do a bit of research on the college: its mission, history, academic opportunities, etc. After that, get creative in matching the student’s reasoning with the college’s identity.
  • No negativity. If the student struggles here and there, his or her academic transcript will reflect it. There’s no need to bring it up again. Overall, it’s a good idea to leave out all negativity. You agreed to write the letter, after all, which means you should have the student’s back.
    • There is one exception. If the student overcame adversity, turned his or her life around, or suffered academically because of extenuating circumstances, then it is perfectly fine to discuss ‘negative’ information about the student. In fact, college admissions counselors look highly upon applicants who learned from past mistakes, or went through hardships that no teenager should experience.

Final Thoughts

Writing a good college recommendation letter takes a lot of care, but not necessarily a lot of time. If you apply these tips and tricks, your letter will go a long way in helping a student get into the college of his or her dreams.  

Thomas Broderick lives in Northern California. After teaching at an alternative high school for four years, he now works full time as a freelance writer in the educational field.

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