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Recommendation Letters

This content was prepared for a workshop with school teachers.

To all the teachers and counselors who write recommendation letters…

Thank you for the time you put in to supporting your students’ applications. We really appreciate the added perspective your letters provide. In a small community like ours, we care deeply about ensuring that the students we admit will be well-suited for the rigor and curiosity in our classes. Your recommendation letters (“rec letters”) provide that helpful context.

When is the rec letter reviewed?

Typically, we read the rec letters towards the end of the application. At that point, we’ve already had a chance to review the student’s list of activities, the transcript, and the test scores. We may have also read several other recommendation letters before getting to the one you’ve written.

What kind of content makes a teacher rec letter helpful?

  • Specific examples from class
  • Remarks on academics, not extracurriculars (unless you also know the student from a club/sport)
  • Insight into how the student handled any challenges from your class

What should I talk about?

If you’re feeling unsure of where to start the rec letter, or how to make it sound personal, consider the following questions. What kind of specific memories are stirred?

The Material:

  • How engaged was the student with the subject?
  • Did the student show a particular love of the material? What about a noteworthy talent? (don’t force it, just mention it if it’s there)
  • Was the student curious about the material beyond the assigned work?
  • Did the student ever make connections to earlier material or content from other courses?
  • Did the student have a flexible mind that embraced new concepts?

Student Habits:

  • How would you describe the work ethic: committed to doing good work? Good time management?
  • Would you ever find the student helping others?
  • What role did the student play in your class? Were they a regular participant? Would you have liked them to participate more often? How did others react when they spoke up?
  • Did the student typically exceed or miss your expectations on assignments?
  • What might you remember most about this student?

Academic Personality:

  • How does the student interact with other classmates? What about with faculty members?
  • Does the student have a good sense of humor? How did the student handle stressful situations?
  • Did the student do anything (intentionally or inherently) to improve or detract from a positive classroom atmosphere?

Special Circumstances:

  • If the student received a poor grade, why? If it’s because they struggled with the material, did they take any steps to improve?
  • Do you know of tough circumstances at home or school that may have hurt the student’s ability to succeed… or made their success all the more amazing? We don’t need to know details, but it’ll help us if you can tell us whether those circumstances had an effect on their work.
  • Did the student face situations that invoked their integrity? Students are required to report some disciplinary action, but if you have a specific example from your own experience, for better or for worse, you may wish to include it.

It’s okay to…

  • Keep it short! Less than a page is great (and an introduction followed by a bullet point list is absolutely OK)
  • Focus on the ways you know the student. If their extracurriculars weren’t a factor in your relationship, don’t worry about including them: we’ll learn about them elsewhere
  • Trust that we’ll have lots of other elements of the application to learn about the student. Focus on what you know.
  • Tell us funny stories that highlight funny, relevant qualities: we don’t need to be serious all the time (or even much of the time)
  • Keep the rec un-tailored to Carleton unless you already have specific experience with us. It’s not your job to tell us whether the student is a good fit for our school in particular.
  • Write about a student like she’s a high schooler: we know they’re high schoolers and might not have the academic sophistication of a PhD candidate
  • Use whatever voice comes most naturally to you
  • Write honestly. A rec letter can be very helpful, even if it isn’t positive.

Examples of helpful content:

  • “It does not matter if there has been a big basketball game the night before or the opening of a play that she is starring in, Jordan’s homework will be done perfectly the next day. She is wonderful at managing her time even when her schedule is very busy. She thoughtfully works ahead on assignments so that when other events are happening, she has the time to fully commit to them. ”*
  • “As a tutor, Shavonne transferred her hard work and her thoughtfulness to her work with peers. She often brainstormed the best ways to help encourage peers to use the tutoring center, as well as being one of our star tutors. Whenever a student needed extra care or was nervous about getting help in math and science, we recommended Shavonne. She has a very warm and non-judgmental attitude that immediately makes anyone feel comfortable in her presence, even when struggling on hard math problems.”
  • “In class, at least once a month I would find Mike posing a question about a solution method or a definition that showed a deeper contemplation of the nuances of the topics. These questions were often at the level of a graduate student’s thinking of chemistry.”
  • “In spite of having substantial roles in both plays last year, Dominic never asked for an extension or gave any indication of struggle. He regularly solicits feedback and receives counsel with remarkable grace, genuinely wanting to improve his work and his understanding.”
  • “When Danielle gets excited about something, there is really no stopping her. As a culmination of our study of the endocrine system, students were asked to examine a particular hormone cycle and present their findings to the class. Danielle has a particular interest in feminism and reproductive science, so she chose to research how birth control works on a physiological level.”
  • “In my five years as class dean, the senior retreat has never gone as smoothly and generated as much good will among the students, and this is largely because of natural cheerleaders and motivators like Siddiq.”
  • “Tim is a gifted mathematician. He works fluently and flexibly with the material and new topics are quickly integrated into his existing framework. It’s not easy to throw a curve to Tim or trick him with a cleaver problem. He is a patient thinker and handles new ideas with ease and grace. Last year when we shifted from combinations to permutations during our probability unit, Tim handled this new concept smoothly. From first day, he was able to differentiate between the two concepts, something many of his peers struggled to grasp. So Tim took it one step further and guided his classmates through an example of his own. He used the line-up of his baseball team to differentiate the two ideas. Cleverly, Tim created a mock game and had the class decide which players would bat and discussed how the order and decisions made by the class ‘managers’ would influence whether a permutation or combination was appropriate. Brilliant!”
  • “Although Michelle struggled very little with this concept, she was caught off guard once when graphing a challenging problem on the board in front of the class. She was the first student to attempt the challenge and even though she didn’t get it on the first try, she listened to feedback from her classmates and adjusted her graph. She was open to their suggestions and learned through her attempts. I believe this experience not only helped Michelle become more skilled at graphing, it was also helpful for her peers to see Michelle struggle, something that was a rare occurrence in our class. She did so openly and without embarrassment, setting a tone of our class that it’s okay to not know everything, but if you give your best, you will succeed at the end of the day.”

*names changed

What makes a rec letter unhelpful?

  • No examples, anecdotes, memories to put the adjectives into context
  • No discussion of academics (sole focus on personality, or club accomplishments)
  • No mention of the student’s struggles (if applicable)
  • Repetition of the resume: instead, focus on how you know the student
  • Uses another student’s name, or the same passages as in other letters: how can we take it seriously?
  • Focuses more on your own accomplishments and course content than what the student actually did

What if I can’t write a positive rec letter?

It’s in a student’s best interest to have positive rec letters that highlight their strengths. We read thousands of applications every year, and most rec letters are enthusiastic in their support. Depending on your school’s culture, you might feel comfortable telling the student you’re unable to do give them a positive rec letter. If you’re struggling to find positive things to say, you may want to ask the student what makes them proud about their performance in your class. Of course, a rec letter doesn’t have to be positive in order to be helpful to us… and we still might admit a student, even if the rec letter includes some negative information. It’s really up to you whether you want to write the letter.

In closing, thank you.

Your rec letters help us see what the student might be like in our classrooms. Your insights into their curiosity, behavior, and motivation are a valuable part of our application review. As always, if you have questions, feel free to get in touch. We’re here to help!