Students, ask for a rec letter from a teacher who knows you well, so that s/he won’t have to conjure up praise out of thin air!

by Noah Pittman

Every spring, we read about how competitive college admissions continues to get throughout the country. We see all sorts of headlines, ranging from “College X proudly turns away 3,000 students with perfect SAT scores in order to keep its acceptance rate at 0.1%” to “Don’t even think about applying to College Y unless you have aced EVERY AP exam.” Obviously, these are exaggerations, but the desire for high-achieving students to get into selective institutions and scholarship programs continues to increase. Take our own fellowship program at the University of Arkansas, which includes the Honors College, Bodenhamer and Sturgis fellowships. These fellowships provide $72,000 ($18,000/year) to new honors students, which is the highest valued merit scholarship at the University of Arkansas. The fellowship can combine with a scholarship from the Arkansas Department of Higher Education for in-state students or the New Arkansas Non-Resident Tuition Award for out-of-state students, creating a substantial financial aid package.

When I started working for the Honors College almost ten years ago, we may have had around 500 fellowship applications in a given year. Today, that number is over 900. The value of the fellowship has gone up in that time, but we still only offer about 90 of the awards each year, meaning the competition has significantly increased.

I’m constantly asked what a student can do to improve his/her chances of receiving a fellowship application. I always tell them to read an earlier blog post, the Inside Scoop on Scholarship Applications, which provides some good tips. I also encourage students to attend an Honors College recruitment program like Convocation or Discovery Day, where they can learn more about the process. What I have found in recent years, though, is that teachers and counselors are now starting to ask for tips on how to write letters of recommendation for the fellowship program, hoping that could provide an extra boost to a student’s application.

Yes, these letters matter – and yes, in many cases there is room for improvement.

Going through my records, I can safely say I have read about 5,000 recommendation letters in my life. I’ll be blunt: the vast majority of these letters are okay, but far from great. Sure, these letters provide positive information about the applicant, but in too many instances, they add little to the application. With that in mind, I wanted to provide some elements we typically see in an effective letter of recommendation.

A caveat before reading these, though: it would be next to impossible to fully address each of these tips in each letter you write. These are far from firm guidelines, just some potential ideas for those who want to prepare an effective letter.

  1. Avoid the “average letter” trap

To quote former Supreme Court Justice Stewart Potter in Jacobellis v. Ohio, “I know it when I see it.” For experienced letter readers, there is a certain format in some letters that we see that immediately screams “average.” It’s basically a four-paragraph structure that almost always looks like this:

  • Paragraph #1 – I’m the teacher and the student took my _____ class during _____ year of high school
  • Paragraph #2 – Student is smart
  • Paragraph #3 – Student is involved
  • Paragraph #4 – Closing, I give my recommendation/you would be lucky to have this student

Again, there is nothing inherently bad with this format, but this structure is incredibly formulaic and often just repeats what a reviewer sees on the transcript (paragraph #2) and the resume (paragraph #3). Here’s a very basic example of what these middle two paragraphs often looks like:

It is my pleasure to recommend John Doe for the Honors College Fellowship at the University of Arkansas. John took my AP Chemistry course during his junior year. He is an outstanding student, who maintained an A average throughout the year and even scored a 4 on the AP exam. At our high school, John has a 4.1 GPA and is in the top 2% of his class.

Outside of the classroom, John is incredibly involved in extracurricular activities. He has been a member of the varsity soccer team since his sophomore year. John is also involved in Beta Club, and was elected president of the club during his junior year. On top of these commitments, John is a member of a number of different clubs, including Key Club, Spanish Club, and National Honor Society. He even finds time to do service on the side, volunteering at the local animal shelter and donating blood to the Red Cross. I am always impressed that John is able to balance all of these activities with his rigorous course load.

Simply put, when a letter simply adds no new information to the application, it doesn’t kill the student’s chances of receiving a scholarship or admission to a competitive program, but it certainly does not help.

  1. Emphasize a student’s “soft skills”

In order to be eligible to apply for many scholarships and fellowships, a student has to already be pretty accomplished in the classroom. Even though a reviewer has access to a wealth of information in the application, these materials rarely tell us much about a student’s soft skills, where he/she really excels. These skills can include:

  • Grit/ability to overcome obstacles
  • Leadership skills
  • Communication skills (both oral and written)
  • Empathy
  • Ability to work well with others
  • Critical thinking
  • Problem solving
  • Sense of humor
  • …and so on.

I wouldn’t try to address each of these, but maybe point out a couple of skills where you think the student really stands out. If the student has a wonderful sense of humor and is great at connecting with others, tell us. If the student is just one of the best public speakers you have seen at that age, tell us. Too often, students lack the self-awareness to realize these impressive skills they have or they are too humble to describe them in an essay. Realizing this, the letter of recommendation is a great place for us to learn more about the student as a living, breathing individual. We obviously want intelligent students who are prepared for the rigors of our curriculum, but we also want individuals who display some of the important skills and attributes that will allow them be successful within our campus community and beyond.

  1. Provide specific anecdotes and examples to back up assertions

It’s one thing to say that a student is a “great leader” and just leave it at that. There’s nothing wrong with just saying that, but if you want to take your letter to the next level, I would recommend providing specific anecdotes and examples to back up assertions. Let’s say you think John is a great leader and you follow-up with a story like this:

As you probably read in his resume, John was elected to serve as our school’s student council president. What he probably did not mention, though, is that the election process was hard fought between him and another worthy candidate who had similar accolades. The campaign was intense and the final vote was very close, with John winning by a very narrow margin. After the results were announced, the students in John’s class were incredibly divided. Realizing this, John took the time to speak individually with some of his opponent’s most vocal supporters, asking them about what he could do to be an effective student council president in their eyes. John also scheduled a meeting with our school principal to discuss the situation, a sign of remarkable maturity for his age. He even went as far as appointing his former opponent to the student council cabinet, a move that is almost unprecedented at our school, especially after a hard-fought election. Most students would not have gone to great lengths to help heal our school after an election. That’s not John. When it comes to the many high school students I have worked with over the 15 years of teaching, John best personifies what it means to be a true leader.

Anecdotes can also be used to describe a student’s performance in your classroom. If you decide to do this, I would recommend focusing on either the student’s academic skills (e.g. ability to conduct research, lab work, literary analysis, etc.) or genuine passion for the subject matter, especially if a student plans to major in the subject area you teach. Here’s another example I created for an AP U.S. Government & Politics teacher writing for a future political science major:

As you can probably see in her application, Jane plans to major in political science, which makes me incredibly happy. Too many of the students who take my AP U.S. Government & Politics course enroll as a way to pad their college application, and in so many cases, most of their focus is on other college prep courses. These students often perform well enough in the course and on the final AP exam, but I often wonder what they got out of the course in the end other than three hours of college credit. That was never the case with Jane. Each day, Jane came into my classroom excited to learn more about American politics. She was always the most involved in our class discussions, often referencing something she read in the New York Times or the Atlantic Monthly, neither of which was required reading. Not surprisingly, her research paper on how the structure of the electoral college affects modern day presidential campaigns was one of the strongest papers a student of mine has ever produced. She even went to the trouble of citing peer-reviewed political science journals in her paper! I am excited to see what Jane can do as a political science major with an interest in law school. She is one of the brightest students I have ever met, but more importantly, her passion for the subject is one that I know her professors in college will sincerely appreciate.

  1. Provide context, especially if there is a potential deficiency in the student’s application

There is no perfect college applicant. Let me repeat: there is no perfect college applicant. Each student, whether he/she realizes it or not, has deficiencies that any experienced reader can spot from a mile away. This is not to freak anyone out, but it’s just a simple fact: selective programs are always looking for weaknesses in a student’s application. Recommendation letters can provide context to help explain some of those deficiencies. For example, each year, we see students with a lower GPA who had one bad semester on the transcript and straight A’s the rest of high school. Sometimes, a student just had a bad semester for no really good reason. In other instances, something traumatic may have happened, like a serious injury or a death in the family. Issues such as these can definitely be addressed in a recommendation letter as a way to provide much-needed context to a student’s application.

In conclusion…

I hope these tips help you with writing recommendation letters for your students in the future. I also want to sincerely thank you for all the work you do for your students, along with the many extra hours you put in writing these letters on their behalf. As someone who also teaches honors courses when my schedule allows it, I’m constantly amazed by the high quality of students I continue to have in my college classroom each year. These students are intelligent, but more importantly, they are academically well-prepared for the rigors of college, which reflects well on the great high school teachers in Arkansas and beyond.

Want to learn more about writing effective letters of recommendation? Be sure to listen to KUAF’s interview of Dr. Pittman on the subject.