How to Write a Letter of Recommendation for a Student

June 25, 2022

Being a new high school teacher is no easy job. As your first year progresses, you learn to master instructional planning and teaching. You navigate the dynamic aspects of the job, like caring for 150 students and getting along with countless colleagues and supervisors. You master Google classroom, grading software, parent communication, and professional development. And then, as your first summer approaches, a student asks you to write them a letter of recommendation for college next fall. You’re flattered at first, but then 42 more students ask for the same!  Now, it’s yet another hat to wear as you need to figure out how to write a letter of recommendation for a student. You begin:

To Whom It May Concern…No…Dear Admissions Committee…

Generic greeting for a high school student’s college letter of recommendation—Check! Now, the hard part begins…

This article has two intended audiences—1) high school teachers tasked with writing college letters of recommendation and 2) the students requesting them. While a letter of recommendation is ultimately the product of the teacher’s pen, the student can play a role as well. Our previous blog: How to Request Letters of Recommendation for College covers everything students need to know in terms of timing their request, which teachers to ask, and what type of materials should be provided to a recommender. This blog differs in that it is more focused on the desired end result itself: a letter of recommendation that ultimately enhances a student’s college admissions chances. Let’s start by looking at why, in 2022-23, letters of recommendation are more important than ever before.

Test-optional policies make recommendations more important

Close to 1,800 colleges nationwide adopted test-optional policies for the 2021-22 admissions cycle. Among these schools were roughly 900 institutions that had already gone test-optional pre-pandemic, and another 800 or so who became test-optional on a temporary basis. The majority of these schools will be test-optional for Class of 2023 high school graduates as well. Further, some universities have adopted full-blown test-blind policies. The University of California system including UC Berkeley and UCLA went test-blind beginning in fall 2021.

As a result of this, schools now have more applications to review and fewer data points to utilize in their decision-making. For example, Cornell University received 17,000 more applications than in any previous admission cycle and Harvard University was deluged with 57,000 applications, a 42% increase from last year. The University of Pennsylvania saw applications shoot up 34%, just behind Tufts’ 35% rise, while Princeton experienced a more “modest” 15% gain. Across all highly-selective schools in the U.S., applications increased by 17%. Sans SAT/ACT scores, highly-selective schools need ways to differentiate between “A students” with comparable profiles—the recommendation is one such differentiator.

The brag sheet

Students, we do recommend including a “brag sheet” to provide your teachers with some greater context as they consider your recommendation letter. But, teachers, we do not recommend regurgitating the contents of the brag sheet/resume directly into your letter. The first reason is because all of those items—standardized test scores, volunteer work, club participation, athletic achievements, etc. will be covered elsewhere in the application. The second, and more important reason, is because the focus of the recommendation should be on things you have actually witnessed with your own two eyes. If you happen to be a particular student’s robotics club sponsor and physics teacher, then by all means, discuss both in detail. Less desirable would be a letter from a physics teacher chronicling a candidate’s deep commitment to chorus or a volunteer organization outside of school–something about which the recommender has no direct knowledge.

Focus on in-class performance

The bulk of your letter should focus on what you have observed from this individual within the four classroom walls. Among the many considerations you may wish to take touch upon include:

  • Evidence of a willingness to take intellectual risks.
  • What makes the student memorable?
  • If helpful, how do they compare to their peers as well as past students you’ve taught?
  • Why would they be a good match academically for a particular college?
  • Any assignments, projects, papers that stand out in your mind.
  • Mastery of the subject matter.
  • Examples of a passion/going above and beyond for the sheer love of learning

Of course, not all of these areas will be relevant to every student as you will likely be writing letters of recommendation for seniors that run the gamut from “average” to “The most incredible student I have ever taught.” For whatever the academic caliber of a given student may be, one of the best ways to personalize a recommendation and make it truly come to life, is through discussion of a student’s character, as directly observed by you—a teacher who has spent parts of 180 or more school days in close quarters with this individual.

Character matters

Seventy percent of college admissions officers state that an applicant’s character is important when making admissions decisions; over a quarter view it as being a factor of “considerable importance”. The classroom is a playing field in which a student’s character is constantly on display. Consider areas like:

  • Describe the student’s work ethic.
  • How do they handle adversity?
  • How do they relate to their classmates?
  • Do they take constructive feedback well?
  • Are they respectful of adults and peers?
  • How do they interact with peers/texts that express views/beliefs different from their own?

Speaking on such topics can go a long way toward adding color to an application. Your words can humanize the applicant in the eyes of an admissions officer who may never actually meet them face-to-face. College admissions officers are all seeking students who will be quality members of their respective campus communities. These personality insights are essential as the admissions staff determines what a candidate will contribute to the incoming class. For more, check out MIT’s excellent piece on what kind of letters help applicants.

Less is more, but not too much less

Research has found a correlation between longer letters and the strength of the relationship between the student and teacher. Research has also revealed that highly detailed letters are more persuasive to admissions readers than examples lacking in specifics. However, that doesn’t mean that letters for high school students should be novella-length.

The sweet spot for recommendation letter length is between two-thirds of a page and a full page; somewhere in the neighborhood of 300-400 words. As tough as it is for a teacher, who may be writing dozens of letters of recommendation each year, the boilerplate material should be the first to be cut, particularly in the case of exceptional students about whom there may be a ton to say. It’s obvious, but still worth saying—admissions officers read thousands of letters of recommendations and when a letter is full of generalities and platitudes, eyes will likely glaze over and skimming will commence.

College Transitions’ key takeaways

  • In a test-optional world, recommendations matter more than ever before.
  • A brag sheet or resume offers important context but should not be the focal point of the letter of recommendation.
  • The main focus of the letter should be what the teacher has directly observed about the student academically.
  • In addition to academics, speaking about a student’s character can be highly persuasive in the admissions process.
  • The ideal length for a letter is between two-thirds of a page to one full page. Shorter letters may signal that you do not have much to say about a given applicant; longer may be more than a busy admissions officer cares to read.