The Art/Science of the College Recommendation Letter

images (8)By Nick McDaniels — This year, I am being bombarded with requests for college recommendation letters from seniors.

I’ve written over 25 already this year with another six to write this week (so far). It makes sense that I would be asked, since I know these students so well, but now I think word is getting out that,  not only will I write these letters, but can write one fast if in a pinch.

This is a blessing and a curse because the joy of talking about great students on paper is something we rarely carve out time to do, in part, because there is no time to carve from. So that I don’t ever have to say no (except for to the one kid I never taught who was told by another I would write him one) I have developed a pretty good system for writing, editing, amending letters to get students what they need in the time they need it.

Here’s how I do it in case you are being bombarded by requests as well:

1) Have your school/district letterhead template ready in many formats to put the letter on.

2) Have a list of activities or resume prepared by the student available while you write so you can include the things you may not have known like “weekly soup kitchen volunteer” or “congregational praise dancer,” both of which I used this year but would not have had I not asked for “the list of things you do.” I always ask for this list before I start writing. If a student can’t deliver that list, then I drop them on my priority list.

3) Develop a number of recurring themes you are likely to use. Make word lists to use for different types of students: the nice kid who struggles academically (dedicated, hardworking, pleasant), the kid who is a complete jerk but has all the academic skills in the world (intelligent, insightful, confident), the kid who is an average student but very popular (leader, respected), the kid who plays 3 sports and is in 3 clubs (devoted, involved, engaged,). These lists will help you develop a theme for writing your letters on which you can build the specifics of the individual student. To be clear you should never resolutely categorize a student in this way, but having word lists available might help bring to mind a particular event or skill/trait that a student possesses that you might want to write about.

4) Keep the first and last paragraphs largely the same in every letter: “It is a sincere pleasure to recommend to you ______ for admission to ______. I know _________ because ________ was a student in my ________ class.” And so on. Then close it with: “There are few students I would be more proud to see accepted into your fine institution than ______. If you need to reach me you can reach me at _____ as I would love to discuss _____ further with you.”

5) Write the middle paragraph(s) from the heart building on the theme you established. I often try to get more colloquial, tone down the professional phrasing and voice in this section. I like to tell stories about the kids, get a little sappy about how important they are, and try to convey that this letter talks about the student as a person, not as an SAT score or GPA (colleges already have that!). This should be the easiest part to write and should put you in a really good, reflective mood.

6) Save for edits or for other schools, print it, sign it, seal it, and keep it moving. (You may also have to become familiar with the number of programs that specific colleges use to allow online submission of these letters now… but your are on your own there as I’ve only seen one that is truly helpful).

In all, writing letters for my students is an absolute joy. I have gotten to reflect just on how much these students have meant to me in my career. I have followed these seniors since their freshmen year. As I said, my name is on their transcripts more than their own in most cases. They have profoundly shaped me as a teacher (I have written this in a few letters). The least I can do is help fill their college application file.

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