How to write letters of recommendation for high-school students

I  hate this time of year.  Week after week, my email is flooded with requests for letters of recommendation.  It’s not my students’ fault.  They only ask because college admissions offices or program directors want them.  Last year, because of one program I introduced students to, I had fifteen recommendations to write within a couple of weeks.  Each recommendation took at least thirty minutes minimum–I can’t just throw together ideas, after all.  That’s over seven hours of recommendation writing.  I wonder how much teaching experience college admissions and program officers have.  If they have any, they’ll know this is an impossible request.

And I doubt these letters play a role anyway.  Over the last twenty years, I’ve led many candidate searches and not once did a letter of recommendation from a candidate play any role in a decision to hire or not hire someone.  I did reference checks out of custom but I never found those useful either.  Let’s face it, we’re only going to have references of people who will say good stuff about us.

One highly competitive college asks teachers to address the following questions in our evaluation:

  • Has the student demonstrated a willingness to take intellectual risks and go beyond the normal classroom experience?
  • Does the applicant have any unusual competence, talent or leadership abilities?
  • What motivates this person? What excites him/her?
  • Has the applicant ever experienced disappointment or failure? If so, how did he/she react?
  • Are there any unusual family or community circumstances of which we should be aware?

Isn’t this information that the student has already provided in one of the essays or somewhere else in the application?  Again, we’re talking at least forty-five minutes per letter with questions like these–and that’s only if the teacher has a strong bond with the student to know all of this.

Many teachers work with students brainstorming, drafting, revising, editing, and building confidence so all of the information in the prompts above is usually revealed in the student’s application.  That’s how teachers can play a role instead of spending endless hours writing paragraphs.

Yes, some students are on their own like I was back in 1990 when I filled out one college application.  But today’s context is different and more and more help is available.

If a student is still on his or her own, the college gets enough other data to make a decision.  One letter from a stranger whose credibility they do not know should not be a deciding factor.  Colleges and programs always have the option of phone or in-person interviews with the student if they have doubts.  Some top colleges have alumni interview applicants near them.

To survive in teaching, I’ve learned to problem solve.  So when students ask me for a letter of recommendation, I say, “Sure.  But I need you to draft it.”  I give them these questions as a guide:

1. Summarize the type of student you were in our English class.  Give a few examples to show this.

2. Describe the intellectual or emotional challenges you faced with the big writing assignments.  Look through your files.  Discuss one writing assignment that challenged you or that you enjoyed the most.

3. Discuss yourself as a writer.  What makes you a successful writer?  How did your writing process grow in our class?  I hope you’re more competent and confident now.  Explain why and how.

4. What else do you do in school, outside of school? Any service learning?  Achievements?  Goals? Or what challenging circumstances have you faced that taught you to persevere?

5. Write all of this in the third person.

After I emailed these to one student, he replied, “C’mon, Man :o( ”  Even students see how letters of recommendation are a pain.

After the student emails me the draft, I modify it by adding to it, changing the sentence structure, replacing some words with fancy synonyms and multi-syllabic phrases, and expanding on any important ideas.  It still takes me thirty minutes per letter.

Never have I had to take out information.  Students are always honest and sincere.

Besides cutting down some of the time, this approach teaches students to speak about their own success.  I believe Yogi Berra might have said something like, “It ain’t braggin’ if you did it.”

I’m still not convinced these letters of recommendation play a significant role in any selection process.  I doubt the weight they carry matches the time we put into them.  They’re probably skimmed and evaluated in seconds.

But I’ll do what many good teachers do every day: I’ll figure out how to turn a difficult situation into  a teachable moment.

I’ll also keep complaining so colleges and program directors understand that we can only do what’s best for students AND what’s manageable for teachers.

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