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Teachers: Mind your Letters of Recommendation

By Martin Walsh, TIE Columnist

Let us think of the university application as a pie. The pieces of the pie include the transcript, test scores, student essays, activities, and recommendation letters from the faculty. And at this point in the process, it is important for the counseling office to provide guidance to teachers working on the letters of recommendation.
Based upon experience, this piece of the application “pie” tends to get neglected. Students are too busy writing essays, preparing for class, and studying for their last round of standardized exams to provide their teachers with much guidance. As for the teachers, well, their fall workload is often so taxing that they often do not have the time to really focus on letters of recommendation. Therefore, I strongly encourage the college counseling office to step in and provide a brief workshop for all recommendation writers.
First and foremost, before teachers begin writing their letters of recommendation they must understand that many universities in the United States employ a committee system, meaning a team of admission officers will be evaluating the application. The committee process requires that portions of the application be read out to all committee members, as the admission officer tries to present a lively and accurate picture of the applicant.
Based upon my experience, the teacher recommendation letters are, without any doubt, the most common source of vital information a committee turns to when trying to get some context to the report card. I have found that once teachers understand that these letters are being read—and SHARED—in a group setting, well, I no longer have to fight for their attention.
Now for the hard part; once you have the attention of the teaching staff, you must provide them with concrete, time-tested suggestions. Personally, I begin all of my presentations with a “DON’T” list; or as I like to say, the seven deadly sins of recommendation writing.
1. Don’t be negative!
First, there is the sin of negativity. Always remind your teachers that their job is to recommend, not evaluate. There should be a huge difference between report comments and the content of a teacher recommendation letter. If a teacher feels compelled to address a student’s weaknesses, the letter must also take the time to show the applicant’s growth and willingness to change.
2. Don’t wander!
Next, there is the sin of wandering. Teachers are expected to write primarily about the academic qualifications of the student. They are the expert, and the only one who can communicate this information. A teacher recommendation that talks about the applicant’s skills as a basketball player or talent as a singer is wasting precious real estate covering information that can be found in other parts of the application.
3. Don’t be boring!
The sin of boredom is also a common error teachers make. Boring letters of recommendation spend an inordinate amount of time covering the content of the course or the background of the teacher. Anything more than one or two sentences on these topics smacks of a form letter and you may lose the reader quite quickly. (A quick side note: most readers are trying to evaluate these applications in under 25 minutes. Once you lose them, well, the application often ends up in the “Deny” pile.)
4. Don’t hit from the baseline!
Moreover, “boring letters” often focus on “presumed,” not “exceptional,” qualities. To explain, letters that tell the reader that the applicant is “nice,” “respectful” or “honest” really add little to the reader’s ability to evaluate the applicant. At all the universities I worked at, we assumed the applicant was a nice, honest, hard-working kid. If he or she was not, then please do not write the letter!
5. Don’t succumb to filler!
Many teacher recommendation letters are also guilty of the sin of filler. By that I mean the letter includes a laundry list of the student’s activities. The student will provide this information in the activity section of the common application, and the counselor’s letter will comment on the applicant’s level of commitment. Again: a teacher recommendation letter must stick to classroom contributions.
6. Too much information!
Next, there is the sin of too much information. Occasionally, teachers reveal sensitive information that has little to do with the application. The focus of the letter should not be on the family or anything personal. What the college wants to know from you is how the student functions academically. Without that information, personal difficulties or high school growing pains merely create a sad case, not a compelling one.
7. Sharpen the message!
Finally, there are those pesky sins of structure and number. As mentioned, the reader must get through the application in about 25 minutes. It should take no more than five minutes to evaluate the two letters of recommendation. The letter should be between 400 and 500 words, and help the admissions officer quickly assess the applicant. In other words, the letter should never be one, long, block paragraph.
So, enough about sin. What should a great teacher recommendation letter include? From experience, I think it is important for a college counselor to provide teachers with specific content suggestions. From my perspective, a teacher should write about a student’s
• Creativity
• Curiosity
• Initiative
• Commitment
• Growth
• Independence of mind
• Interpersonal skills
• Character and integrity
• Writing or research skills
Most importantly, the teacher recommendation must provide the reader with concrete examples to support all assertions. And, I might add, all Grade 10 and 11 teachers must be encouraged to keep a running file documenting student achievement in the classroom.
Writing a letter of recommendation should never be a last-second event for a teacher. Rather, they should enter each class assuming they will be writing letters for all students in attendance. In other words, long-term preparation will save time come the application season and will, without any doubt, produce better letters.
While on this topic, I would like to address the issue of time and compensation. Specifically, should teachers with particularly heavy writing loads be compensated? If so, what is the form that the compensation, and what is the writing threshold needed to be rewarded? I must say, I am a huge fan of rewarding teachers for their efforts. But I am not a fan of giving teachers monetary compensation or gifts. After speaking with literally hundreds of teachers from all corners of the globe, I have found that the one thing that most teachers really want is quiet, uninterrupted time to compose a great letter.
Therefore, for those teachers writing a large number of letters, a personal day is in order. In fact, I feel that for every five letters a teacher has to write, they should be allotted one personal day to work at home. While gifts like chocolate or coffee are nice, what most teachers really need to produce quality work is time. Giving teachers a free day off to write will go a long way in reducing stress and making the application process a bit more fun and—I hope—successful!
Related to this issue is, of course, the one of limits. Specifically, should a school limit the number of letters a teacher can write? Once again, I am a huge fan of placing caps on the number of letters a teacher can write. This will prevent one teacher from writing far too many letters and will insure that all members of the community recognize that they are vital players in the application process.

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12/05/2013 - Phil
I always begin the year discussing the importance of teacher-mentors and directing students to think about each class as a building block in their ability to shine in a reference letter. Each student requesting a letter of reference should offer plenty of time as well as a detailed resume to add "meat/facts" to the letter of reference.