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Recommendations: Teacher Tips

How your teacher colleagues can write effective college recommendations

Colleges need help deciding if a student has the character and ability to function successfully at their institution. A strong teacher recommendation can bring a student to life for the admission committee and may be the decisive factor for students with weaker grades or test scores. How can you help your teacher colleagues write effective recommendations?

The role of the teacher recommendation

Teacher recommendations should be honest appraisals of a student's academic performance and intellectual promise. They are intended primarily to convey the teacher's classroom experience with the student — to give colleges an idea of how the student is likely to perform academically. These recommendations serve a different function than the counselor recommendation, which is meant to provide a broader view of the student.

Teachers should not feel pressured into writing an excessive number of recommendations. If they're not comfortable furnishing a recommendation for any given student, it's in both their and that student's interest that they decline.

Helping teachers gather information

To effectively write recommendations using a personal approach, teachers need to have as much information as possible. Suggest that they ask the student for:

  • A completed student information form or a résumé to supply more anecdotal information for the letter. Print out the Recommendations: Student Self-Assessment and the College Questionnaire for Parents or Guardians for your teachers to use if they like.
  • An "Interaction Sheet" on which the student describes past events or interactions from the time in the teacher's class. This will help the teacher recall specific characteristics of and anecdotes about the student.
  • Assignment samples from the time the student was in the teacher's class. Again, this will help the teacher remember the student.
  • A brief synopsis of the student's goals and interests.
  • A list of colleges the student will be applying to, along with deadlines and any appropriate forms.

Helping teachers write recommendations

Create and distribute a list of positive descriptive words (for example: perceptive, inventive, precise, intuitive and imaginative) that might serve to jog teachers' minds about what a certain student is like. The more specific the teacher can be when characterizing the students and their work, the stronger the recommendation.

Give teachers samples of strong recommendation letters with an explanation of why they're effective. For example:

Deborah's high scores in biology have consistently placed her in the top 5 percent of the class. In addition, her science-fair project in marine biology demonstrated a high level of conceptual understanding of a number of complex varieties of plant and animal life. All of this fits well with Deborah's plan to earn an undergraduate degree, then a master's and Ph.D., so that she can teach college-level biology while performing research on sea urchins.

The above sample is an effective recommendation. It points out:

  • Superior academic achievement.
  • Extracurricular activity involvement.
  • Outstanding personal qualities.
  • Participation in and dedication to a particular field.
  • The teacher's confidence in Deborah's abilities.

Getting the word out

Counselor Mariann Sadler sends a "dos and don'ts" tip sheet she created to all staff members during the first week of school. Her form includes suggestions such as:

  • Do use specific adjectives when writing about a student.
  • Do gather information from the student.
  • Don’t make your letter longer than one page.
  • Don’t use generic letters for recommendations.
  • Don’t agree to write a letter with one day's notice. Require two weeks minimum notice.
  • Don’t report grades; these are on the student's transcript.

These strategies will help you help teachers give your students the boost they need and deserve.

FERPA

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) allows students and their families (if the child is under 18) to review the student's records. This would include reading their recommendations.

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