For Teachers

How to Write a Great Recommendation Letter for a Student

By The Room 241 Team January 29, 2020

The time has come. One of those fresh-faced youngsters has nervously knocked on your classroom door. The anxious and hopeful look in their eyes has already told you what they’re about to ask: They want a letter of recommendation. 

Although it is an honor to be asked, the idea of actually writing the reference can feel like a daunting task.

What to include? What to leave out? Plus, how stodgy is that traditional form? 

College admissions, employers, and recommendation letter writers can agree that the old-fashioned form is just too much. The good news is there’s a better way to write a great letter that is personal, professional, and easier to accomplish.  

This new form is called the organized narrative letter. 

The organized narrative letter

With the input of admission representatives, the organized narrative letter of recommendation works well for all types of students and gives recommendation writers a chance to write a highly personalized, effective letter without the worries of style and creativity. 

While reducing the time it takes to write recommendations, an organized narrative letter also makes it easier for admission professionals and employers to read. This new style is a conglomeration of headers, narratives, and bullet points focused on the relevant information about the student. With no need for long explanations or improvised space fillers, the letter can include more important and relevant content. 

Whatever kind of student you are writing for, the highly accomplished or the “less” accomplished student, following the organized narrative letter helps to highlight the character and involvement of the student without it feeling like a stretch.

A great letter is important 

Most colleges and employers consider the recommendation letter a very important part of the application process. Quality recommendation letters are often the tipping point for a student with an admission representative or within the working world. While family and friends can sing the praises of an applicant, the best letters are usually written by teachers.   

Universities and colleges emphasize learning holistically about students through the submission process and employers want to know more about the person they intend to hire. As a teacher, you can provide insight into the student as a person — something that test scores and student rankings can’t.

Why organized narrative is better

Reasons this works:

  • Focused and fast. Writers are able to work quicker by focusing on the elements they want to share and less about the flow or style of the letter. I mean, who has the time to stress over transitions?
  • Less daunting. Formatted with bullets and headings, the organized narrative relieves the stress of writing a well-crafted letter.
  • Allows for individualism without the standard format. Without repeating the same format that has been used for nearly 300 years, teachers are able to recommend their students with a structure that works. 
  • Advocate for the students without the worry of filling the void. Even the “less” outstanding student can have a great recommendation letter because the ease of bulleting information alleviates the need to “fill up the page.” A few key bullet points can be used persuasively and constructively. 
  • Structure and focus without limiting the possibility for personalization. With so many letters often requested of you, it is helpful to have a form to follow, but still have the freedom to recommend a student in an organic and real way. 
  • Reference points for easier writing and reading. With the structure, it’s easier to know what to include and easier for the readers to see what’s important right away. 

How to write an organized narrative 

  • Distinctive qualities. Your credibility offers an admission board or employer a valuable opinion. Begin by identifying who you are: your position, the subject or course in which you teach, or your coordinator role — especially if you did not have the student in a classroom setting. 

Start with a narrative of about one to two paragraphs that introduces the class(es) you teach and begins to paint the picture of the student as a participant in that classroom setting. Highlight the academic and personal qualities of the student while portraying, as effectively as possible, the student as you know them.

What experiences have you had with this student? In what ways is he or she special? Your goal is to introduce the student so the reader will see them as you do. 

  • Academic and intellectual growth. Add two to five bullet points of the most valuable information you have to share regarding your student’s academic career. At this point, you will begin to focus more on delivering evidence for your student’s personality, work ethic, and social conduct. 

Use anecdotes to tell the story of the student, not just a list of facts and attributes. Pick descriptives and back them up with evidence. Make sense of their academic career or focus on individual points in their academics and academic achievements. Include context and small, measurable statements about their progress. 

Share the nature and duration of the relationship with the student. Include your impressions of the student and the ways in which you have seen them grow and develop. Consider how they’ve surprised or impressed you in the classroom, with learning or in other academic settings. 

  • Personal qualities, interests, and activities. This portion of the recommendation introduces the more personal side of your student. Here is the right place to add context beyond the classroom. Connect the student’s various interests and aptitudes to create a memorable portrait.

Emphasize their most relevant strong points with two to five bullet points. Show the ways in which this student is more than just a chair filler in your classroom by citing specific examples of their character and personality. Use anecdotes to illustrate their competence and determination. Remember to show not tell. Though it may be easier to write a laundry list of positive attributes, it’s better to tell a story.

Start with personable qualities. Emphasize the time and energy they put forth in their extracurricular activities. What are they like as a person, as a leader, as a mentor? Do they go out of their way to do more? Are they a leader with younger students? How do these interests and activities add to their potential as a student or employee? What struggles have they overcome to focus on their education and extracurricular goals

Recommend this student because of who they are, as well as the grades they have earned. 

  • Wrap up. This section has two important purposes: to leave a final reinforcement of the student’s recommendation and to provide a contact method for any further questions. 

Use a sentence or two to wrap things up and make that final recommendation. How will they be successful in college or in this career? Connect statements to prior sections of the letter.

Then share your contact information. It is important to include an email address, telephone number, or both at the end of the letter for any additional comments or questions that may arise. 

A few things to remember

  • Avoid negative tones. Positivity and enthusiasm go a long way in recommendations. 
  • Avoid cliches like hardworking or team player. Find relative and true descriptions and support them. 
  • Focus on the traits worth highlighting. See the list below.
  • Always practice honesty. Your letters are valued for a reason. If you can’t do a truthful letter, perhaps you should guide the student toward someone who can. 
  • Customize the letter to focus on the student’s capacities. Don’t copy and paste. Make each letter as unique as the student requesting it. Again, if you can’t, perhaps suggest someone else. 
  • Decide carefully. It is okay to say no. Teachers are often trusted to write honestly for the students they feel will be successful and to deny a request for a student unworthy of such high praise. If you need to decline,  you can still support the student by suggesting other letter writers such as coaches, club sponsors, or other educators who may be more familiar with the student, their work, and their abilities. 
  • Be sure to get what you need from the student. Ask for any needed academic information: achievements, extracurricular activities, etc. they would like included and addressed. 

Request information about the program, university, or job they are hoping to apply to. If they are requesting a letter as a part of the application for a job, it may help to request their resume for a better understanding of their professional background and experience.

You may ask to see their personal essay if it’s ready. Ask them the reasons for applying to their school choice(s), what they want to achieve, and what they hope to gain from the opportunity. 

And be sure to inquire about the submission of the recommendation letter. Make sure you are able to follow the guidelines and requirements especially regarding the format and where and when to send the letter.

Positive traits to highlight

Here is a list of a few positive traits to emphasize. Remember to use anecdotes and quality evidence to reinforce your statements. 

  • Integrity
  • Perseverance
  • Judgment
  • Motivation
  • Inquiring attitude
  • Maturity
  • Ability to accept guidance and constructive criticism
  • Creativity
  • Confidence
  • Personability and compassion
  • Tenaciousness
  • Reliability and responsibility
  • Decisiveness
  • Attitude
  • Communication skills

Avoid nonspecific traits 

  • Nice
  • Likable
  • Popular
  • Sweet
  • Kind
  • Pleasant

Advocate for your student in the right way. 

There are few things as honorable as being asked to write a recommendation letter, no matter how time-consuming it may or may not be. As many admissions officers or employers will make important decisions about your student before ever meeting them, a large part of the selection process will depend on the enlightening personal and intellectual qualities you share. Take care in composing your letter as it means a great deal to the student and can change the trajectory of their life.

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