Writing a Letter of Recommendation for Students

If you are a high school teacher, at some point you will be tasked with writing a letter of recommendation for students. These are my ideas for proceeding with writing recommendations for students. 

High school students ask their teachers for letters of recommendation. After we develop relationships with students, they naturally ask us for help. Sometimes these are for colleges and other times, they are for jobs. Other times, students will ask for a letter of recommendation for scholarships. After a dozen years of writing these letters, I have developed a system. Please take this process and make it your own for writing letters of recommendation for students.

You're a high school teacher: Writing recommendations for students is part of the job. Writing letters of recommendation for students can be a lenghthy process but with a few simple guidelines, you can find the process manageable. Writing a letter of recommendation for students should be personalized and authentic.

When a student asks for a letter of recommendation. . .

Be honest.

I don’t write a letter of recommendation for every student who asks. If a student has not earned a recommendation, I suggest that the student ask another teacher who probably knows that student better than I do.

Sometimes, I am simply not the best teacher for this student. In that case, I am honest and suggest another teacher who probably knows the student better than I do. Writing recommendations for students is a responsibility, and I am honest in the process. 

Ask for ideas.

When I write a letter, I know that student and am willing to support them. Still I ask for an overview—jobs, extra-curricular activities, grades, etc. You might find new insight into this student’s life.

Ask for the writing prompt or directions. Colleges typically ask students to submit a letter of recommendation and provide directions. Be sure you understand the expectations. Many college have passwords for teacher to submit letters online. With this situation, I write the letter ahead of time and copy and paste it into the school’s form. It helps to know this in advance.

Brainstorm.

The brainstorming portion takes me longer than writing the letter! If you are writing a letter of recommendation for students with wonderful GPAs and test scores, you probably have material for the letter. Still, even for the highest achieving of students, give the reader insight that a teacher uniquely can.

For every student, think of what you know that others might not see. We teachers know that students are more than grades and test scores, so this is your chance!

Before you begin writing, think of what you will say. I follow two guidelines when brainstorming.

  1. Think of an experience you shared with the student. Did you discuss a book together? Did you witness a breakthrough? Did the student writer an impassioned paper? Did they meticulously research a topic or take extra care with an assignment? Humanize the student and demonstrate that you actually know this person.
  2. Ask yourself what this student has done well that makes them shine in comparison to other applicants. For instance, I’ve bragged about students who have contributed to their household incomes while maintaining a ‘B’ average, students who have joined the speech team their senior year with no prior experience, and students who have befriended an outsider in class.

Jotting down a few ideas to keep in mind will focus you while writing a letter of recommendation.

Write.

Introduce yourself (briefly), explain why the student belongs in the program or college (or will be an asset to the company), and conclude. Unless specified, keep the letter under a page in length.

Double (maybe triple) check your work for errors and clarity.

Final preparations.

Typically, colleges want the letter on school letterhead in a sealed envelope. Be sure that you follow directions. If you don’t, this could reflect poorly on the student. When jobs ask for a letter, they are typically less formal. I still submit the final letter on letterhead.

Sometimes, the student will have a unique login for teachers that is directly on the college’s website. Be sure to familiarize upload or copy/past where prompted.

I approach writing a letter of recommendation for students seriously. I only write letters for students for whom I can write a solid letter, one that I will proudly sign my name at the bottom. I expect a fact sheet from students, directions, and time. In exchange, I will compose a crafted letter.

We teachers know our students deserve it.

Still need more ideas for writing a letter of recommendation? See what Melissa suggests at Reading and Writing Haven.

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