Letters of Recommendation for College-Bound Students: Tips for Parents and Students from a Former Teacher

By Mary Papoutsy

Every student heading for college inevitably gathers data as part of the application process. Most of these collections consist simply of forms, support materials requested by the schools, transcripts and letters of recommendation. In a few cases, notably in the arts, a portfolio of the student's actual work may be required for assessment by college faculty.

But of all of the items included in the application, the letters of recommendation can really affect the entire application process like a wild card in a game. Exceptionally well written letters of recommendation have the potential to overcome completely any perceived deficiencies or disadvantages. Even more than that, they may also boost a student's chances. An articulate, thoughtful recommendation, replete with solid examples, may make a student'
s application stand out from others being considered and may clinch the acceptance.

One of my former college students who was applying to graduate school asked me for a letter of recommendation. Delighted, I set about using the same criteria that I always used when writing these letters for my college-bound high school students. The four-page final product discussed the student's work habits (excellent—she was very diligent, always prepared, had good attendance), gave abundant examples of her determination to complete her studies in the face of enormous difficulties (character—important for someone wishing to become a teacher), detailed exactly what had been learned in class (essentials of the syllabus), which textbooks had been used (important for a language major), what was the pedagogy used in class (methods of teaching--again important for a language major), how this student fared scholastically in comparison to others in her class, how this class fared in comparison to other classes statewide and nationwide (important for graduate-level work), and finally, something about me as an instructor. The net result was that an above-average student was vaulted to the top of the application pack, receiving a teaching assistantship to boot.

On another occasion, one of my Latin students—but a science major—received an unsolicited letter of recommendation from me to participate in the Honors Program at the state university while I was teaching there. Although I was very busy, I nonetheless took the time to review all of my course records and to select a student whose intellectual curiosity and diligence had impressed me. I followed a writing process similar to the one just described above. The result was the same—acceptance. An above-average student, most of whose science classes consisted of filled lecture halls or laboratory sessions, was awarded the opportunity to participate in a seminar-type honors collegiate program.

Next Page: The One-Sentence Recommendation Letter