The Good, the Bad, and the Boring: Letters of Recommendation

The Good, The Bad, and
the Boring:
How to write an effective
recommendation for
(almost) any student
The Basics
Academic context
Context of the student in the community
Conclusion and endorsement
Information gathering
• Ask for a student resume
• Have the student answer specific questions or
a questionnaire
• Collect comments from progress reports or
• Ask for parental feedback or a questionnaire
• Interview student
The Good
• Often the easiest letter to write because the student is so
outstanding, the letter practically writes itself.
• Explain the background or situation and why you think s/he is
outstanding. Your student doesn’t have to be one of the best in
the nation to be one of the best in your community.
• Give specific details and examples. Help the college
understand school and community context and why this
particular student stands out.
• Explain achievements if necessary, give details and
• Avoid hyperbole, even for the most extraordinary. It will only
weaken your credibility and thus your ability to advocate.
And as much as you love them, keep it
to a page. (With legible font size!)
The Bad
• Often the trickiest letters to write
• Know your administration – would a letter with
negative feedback cause you future problems?
• Create a “non-recommendation” with faint or no
praise, simply facts
• Make it shorter than your usual letter
• Ask the college to call you to speak further about
the student, and leave your concerns for that call
• Be tactful, but honest. Protect your ethics, and the
relationship with the college.
(Substitute “fired” for expelled, and you
get the drift…)
The Boring
• AKA: The kid who gives you no feedback, the
enigma, or the kid you have never seen before
• Fall back on the data you have without the
student’s input
• Focus on the positive information you do have,
even if it is only one point
• Avoid creative writing
• Your letter can still read as very supportive even
if the student is not a star
• Rely on the basics mentioned earlier
Tips and Tricks
• Make the format of the letter interesting to read. For
example, title the paragraphs for the reader, or use
alliteration, (Sarah as a “scholar, senator, student of
• Use quotes, lines from poetry or songs. (Be careful not to be
corny or sappy.)
• Think about how your community views the student, and if
any relevant image comes to mind, make an analogy to
paint a picture of the student. "Timmy is the Bill Gates/Tim
Tebow/Conan O'Brien of our high school." Explain why. It
can make the student stand out vividly in an admission
officer's mind.
• Be creative, passionate, or persuasive.
Do’s and Don’ts
Be clear in your description
Be concise
Don't give laundry list of activities
Don't use strings of adjectives
Don't include information about you
“Show” don’t “tell” - use good descriptive writing
Don’t ever “recycle” a letter, specific paragraphs,
or even catchy phrases or common adjectives
• Be honest
• Simply stated, write what you would like to read
Do the best with what you
have, and GOOD LUCK!

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