Flourishing mind concept

The Right Approach for Teacher Recommendations

Oftentimes when undergraduate student applicants are admitted or rejected by a college, we’re quick to point to one or another of the “glamorous” factors such as a high GPA, honors or advanced coursework, a summer job managing a relative’s sporting goods store. It’s rare that we as students consider teacher recommendations as a tipping point or deciding factor. Why? Likely because we have little control over it.

Once the request leaves our hands, it goes into those of another who we’re hoping, perhaps expecting, will present us in a positive light and contribute to our stellar applicant profile. But once it leaves the recommender’s hands, we can never be sure. We take a leap of faith. Understand this: What others say about us, matters, sometimes a lot, when it comes to college admissions decisions. And while it’s rare that a recommender would agree to stand up for a student and then cut him down in the letter, it could happen.

Teacher recommendations can indeed be supportive yet they can also be detrimental at the same time due to other factors that we can in fact control. The following advice includes my own personal commentary to former students based on my expectations as a teacher and how best practices typically apply when we’re asked to produce one. Note: the focus here is on undergrad students applying to college; high school recommendations are often filled out on a predefined form, and graduate school letters may follow a different more flexible approach.

1.) Keep the length to one page

The general length for a teacher recommendation is no more than one page. Admissions readers are busy and have many recommendations to read during the application period. Like a resume, there are expected length requirements. The lengthier, more detailed attributes of a student can go on a resume; for a recommendation, brevity is better. The recommender’s signature and contact details can spillover if necessary, but otherwise, keep it around one full page, with normal formatting, i.e. no unreasonable thin page margins or microscopic font size. Consider also that a recommendation is but one component of many the reader will be evaluating from countless student applications. It’s in the student’s best interest to receive a full read, not risk getting glossed over by a pair of tired eyes looking beyond what’s right there in front of them.

2.) Too much praise is not a good thing

While many teachers mean well in heaping praise on a student, constantly repeating the same gushing compliments can be met with both disdain and suspicion. This is something that I look very carefully at in critiquing letters and the more I see overused hyperbole like “wonderful,” “one of a kind,” and “best student” it raises red flags. What we’re looking for here is authenticity. Yes, a letter should present a student in a positive light but objectivity must be the overriding factor. Even if we’re representing a student who’s an underachiever, a good guy who deserves a break, resist the temptation to go overboard.

Teachers are authority figures and expected to write responsibly, and to that end, understand their audience just like any other writer should. We are thought of as credible sources of useful information, not fanboys that so desperately want “our” student to be admitted that we’ll take things to an unrealistic extreme. Steer clear of being too “personal” that it forsakes the “professionalism” behind it.

3.) Stepping outside your safety zone

When a Math teacher is asked to write a recommendation letter, it’s presumed to be in the context of mathematics. This would of course include a student’s participation and performance within that particular class, and likely related extracurricular involvement outside. These are expected. But beyond that… no. Consider: How could a math or English teacher possibly know all the many extracurricular activities a student’s involved in outside of class? As an admissions reader, do I really care to hear from an Art teacher who’s also congratulating a student for earning first prize in their region’s Betty Crocker Bake Off? Certainly not. So as with point #2, this raises concerns to me about authenticity and legitimacy. We don’t want that.

Guidance counselors, however, would have greater knowledge of a student’s complete background, and thus, it makes sense to comment on well-roundedness and breadth of experience. They’ll review a student’s record or request a resume for reference in drafting their recommendation. This is perfectly normal. They’re busy people and can’t be expected to account for however many hundreds of students they serve at the drop of a hat. But where individual subject-specific teachers are concerned, this is not within their safety zone.

The bottom line

Writing is itself a fine art, and to be fair, some teachers are better qualified than others to write recommendations. Some are more thoughtful, others too lazy to be bothered. But the fact is everyone needs to do it at one time or another. It’s our responsibility and should be an honor to advocate on our students’ diligence and deserved accolades. However, we teachers also need to approach things from the reader’s point of view in order to remain objective while also realizing the degree of power we possess with our words. Teacher recommendations can certainly be difference-makers in a student’s candidacy, and by erring on the side of caution, we can ensure they’ll make a positive impact in the best interest of the student.