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Tips for Educators and Guidance Counselors


The resources in this section are designed as a quick guide to writing effective letters of recommendation. It is specifically for the high school teachers and guidance counselors who may be asked to write letters of recommendations for students. 

Contributors:Reme Bohlin
Last Edited: 2016-01-25 10:26:41

Accepting or Declining a Request to Write a Letter of Recommendation

Whenever you receive a student’s request to write a letter of recommendation, consider the following when making a decision whether or not to accept:

If you agree to write a letter of recommendation for your student, consider these methods for gathering information and specific details to aid you in writing your letter.

If you feel that you cannot write a positive recommendation letter for the student, whether because of your knowledge of the student’s classroom behavior and work or because you simply do not know them well, it is in the student’s and your best interest to decline. A negative or even a neutral recommendation letter can seriously harm a student’s application. The letter of recommendation is not the space to work out a personal grievance against the student (Schall 43).

When declining a student request to write a recommendation letter, consider directing the student to faculty who may know them better and therefore be more qualified to write a recommendation letter.

Formatting a Letter of Recommendation

There are a few basic formatting rules when writing a letter of recommendation.

Recommendation letters, like any other genre of writing, typically follow certain conventions. The recommendation letter usually consists of four major parts (Toglia). While genre conventions should never be followed formulaically, certain pieces of information are necessary and should be mentioned up front, such as for whom you are writing and your relationship to them.

Finally, keep in mind that the letter of recommendation should not merely repeat what is listed on the student’s resume. Keep your letter focused and personal to enhance the sincerity of your praise. Consider focusing on one or two things you believe are most important for the admissions committee of College X to know about your student.

Often the university or college to which you are writing will have particular requirements or conventions. They might ask that you discuss a time when your student overcame an academic obstacle, or they might ask that you focus on the student’s quality of leadership. Also be aware of length requirements and due dates. Not following the instructions or requests of the college’s admissions committee could result in harming your student’s college applications.

Be sure to double check your grammar and spelling as those kinds of mistakes can negatively impact your credibility as a recommender.

Avoiding Ambiguous Language and Hyperbolic Clichés

Recommendation letters are so often filled with unearned and hyperbolic praise that their value as objective and accurate accounts of student achievement and character has decreased. Thus, readers of recommendation letters are hypersensitive to the language used by the writer, reading criticism where there is none intended (Range et al 390-91). Often, ambiguous phrases are the culprit for communicating criticism.

For example, phrases such as “To the best of my knowledge,” or “As far as I know,” have the (perhaps unintended) consequence of distancing yourself from the student, suggesting that you do not know them that well at all.

Some other examples of ambiguous phrasing are below, taken from actual recommendation letters (Range et al 390-91):

These phrases are marked by confusing nouns (what’s a “sure thing”?) or qualified praise (being unsure of oneself is “not necessarily a bad trait”). Be direct and specific instead of assuming that the reader of the recommendation letter will have the same idea of what a “sure thing” is as you do. Also, watch out for praise that actually reads as thinly veiled criticism (“He has developed adequate skills…”).

In addition to ambiguous language, avoid using hyperbolic praise. Readers find that letters are unhelpful when they contain statements that are “non-specific” such as “outstanding” (cite-Miller and Von Rybroek), or contain praise that is so extreme as to make the reader suspicious of its claims.

If you really are writing a recommendation letter for the “best student you have ever taught,” then make sure that your praise is supported by specific examples which help define for admissions committees and readers what you mean by “outstanding.” 

Balancing Praise and Criticism

Because of their tendency to be full of over-the-top praise, recommendation letters are read with some skepticism by admissions committees. Whether due to a feeling of obligation towards the student, a fear that the student may read their letter, or because the letter is rushed to meet deadlines, recommendation letters tend to be filled with hyperbolic praise and generalizations. This tendency towards (unearned) praise has decreased the value of a recommendation letter so that some programs have begun requiring four letters instead of two (Range et al 390).

Any praise should be supported by specific examples. Some of the best ways to incorporate examples about a student’s accomplishments are to:

Remember to choose examples that are relevant to the university to which your student is applying. For example, if your student is intending to study pre-law at her college of choice, you might focus on the three qualities or examples that demonstrate her aptitude for that area of study. Your recommendation letter should not read like a list of positive but unrelated examples and attributes.

Although readers of recommendation letters can be desensitized and therefore skeptical of over-blown praise, this also means that any criticism of a student stands out and might mean the difference between an acceptance or rejection of their application (Miller and Van Rybroek 116). Criticism of your student should be thoughtful and tempered by providing context. For example, you might include in your letter a discussion of Student X’s poor performance for one semester, but also note that this was due to challenges at home.

Sometimes the college or university will invite your assessment of the applicant’s weaknesses or areas for improvement. If that is the case, provide thoughtful criticism and cite the invitation as you give the critique. Restrain your criticism to one paragraph or less in the letter, making sure to avoid ambiguous wording which might seem like veiled criticism instead of an honest assessment of areas your student can improve (Schall 42). For example, the phrase “to the best of my limited knowledge” suggests that you do not know the student that well. Use direct and affirmative statements such as, “I know that her complexity of thought will grow in the intellectual atmosphere created by your university.”

You could also tie criticism of the student to your own ethics as a writer of recommendation letter (Schall 42). For example, you might state that as a recommender you feel obligated to give a balanced assessment of your student in contrast to the typical recommendation letter which offers biased and suspect praise.

Including Sensitive Information

In requesting a letter of recommendation for a college application, the student has given tacit permission for you to share any information that might be relevant to writing a recommendation letter, such as GPA or class ranking. Unlike college students, high school students and their grades are not protected under FERPA (Heinz).

Students have the option to waive their right to see their letter of recommendation once it is written. Recommend to the student that they do this. Not only will it allow you to write more freely and sincerely, a letter that has not been read by the student is seen as more genuine and truthful by the admissions committee. Even if the student has waived their right to see their letter of recommendation, you may wish to share it with them. Do so in a case by case basis. Some teachers feel more comfortable than others in sharing letters they have written.

In your letter, you may feel obligated to provide potentially negative or neutral information. If this is the case, consider adding a request to contact you for further information regarding the student. You might wish to write a very positive recommendation letter but also feel the need to explain more fully the obstacles your student has had to overcome, or perhaps extenuating circumstances for their poor performance in the classroom. Remember, if you feel that you cannot write anything positive about the student requesting a recommendation letter, it is in both your best interests to decline.  

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