The Art of the College Recommendation Letter

How teachers can move beyond statements like, “She is a consistently respectful student.”
See-ming Lee/flickr

In late September, seniors case my classroom in the early morning and charge in before I’ve turned on my laptop. They corner me at the copy machine and at the entrance to the faculty lounge. They each want the same thing: a letter of recommendation. And when I say yes, the student presses a crumpled brag sheet in my hands and runs in the opposite direction. Most teachers who have seniors as students are lucky if fewer than 20 ask, and generous if they agree to do 15. Writing a meaningful letter of recommendation takes time, a luxury that teachers don’t have. Still, it is difficult to say no to a worthy student, especially one who has made a public request with pleading puppy eyes.

I usually end up writing 12 to 15 recommendations per “season.” Some teachers are more prolific recommendation letter mills, churning out dozens every fall. Yet, judging from the specimens I have seen sliding from the office printer, their often-simple formula falls short.

A lot of teachers introduce themselves, announce the subject’s suitability for college, summarize his or her academic performance, and then fill in personal details by following the brag sheet—an unfortunately named document that endeavors to outline a student’s achievements: sports played, volunteer work completed, awards won, and so forth. Teachers who draw from the brag sheet merely end up corroborating the information revealed elsewhere in an application.

“He was defensive player of the year for the football team.”

“She ran student government and earned a 4.0.”

“His exam scores were the best in his class for the second half of the year.”

Even when these teachers editorialize further, they may traffic in the sorts of dull generalities that student writers are taught to avoid.

“She is a consistently respectful student.”

“He always puts forth great effort, no matter the task.”

The routine reduces students to bland shades of their real vibrant selves. The messages may also be misleading. A "respectful, quiet" student might sit in the back of class and never contribute to discussions. A "gregarious, social" student may be a pain in the ass unless his talkativeness is harnessed for an academic purpose. A "late bloomer" probably tanked his freshman year. 

Admissions officers see hundreds of letters and encounter the same clichéd phrases and trite euphemisms again and again. We teachers mean well, and when it comes to applicants with stellar grades and scores, our letters may do no harm. But when we write formulaic recommendation letters, we’re not thoughtfully considering the purpose of a recommendation letter, and as a result, we’re probably not making great cases for promising students with less sparkling academic records.

That’s why I’m trying to embrace a different way of writing recommendations. My job is not to draw big neon circles around a student’s achievements so that an admissions officer will pay more attention to them. Instead of bragging on behalf of the student, I want to render human the person admissions officers may view as a collection of letters and numbers, to say what those grades and scores cannot.

A recommendation letter can discuss the academic and, when relevant, personal challenges a student has faced. It can clarify a student’s learning style and distill what he or she brings to a conversation about an academic topic. After all, colleges are trying to build classes of students, not simply usher in as many high-scoring kids as fate will permit. A recommendation, when it is done right, highlights, instead of purely the triumphs, the intangibles in a student's application. It helps admissions officers accomplish the goal of building a class that will thrive at the school and take advantage of the opportunities it can provide.

I avoid gratuitous praise. I can recommend a student “without reservations” and nonetheless call honest attention to challenges they have faced. It is not an error of inclusion to describe a student’s miserable first impression. Sharing a selective, respectful history of a student’s turbulent home life does not reflect poorly upon the applicant or the writer. Once an admissions officer at a very selective East coast liberal arts school and currently a college counselor at a private Quaker school, Ryan Keaton believes in keeping it real. “When I was in admissions . . . reading about how the student walked on water made me wonder if I was getting an accurate representation,” she says. “When I write now, I make sure I'm representing strengths and struggles honestly. If the rec letter doesn't add depth, then it's pointless. I learned that as an admission counselor reading umpteen letters a day.”

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Andrew Simmons is a writer, teacher, and musician based in California. He has written for The New York TimesSlate, and The Believer.

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