My two cents on letters of recommendation

For those of us that teach high school, we know this time of year well. ‘Tis the season for letters of recommendation! I’m feeling rather festive this year, and I have 7 of them patiently waiting for my attention as I type this sentence, so what am I going to do? Forget all about writing them, forget all about being productive. Instead, I’ll just ramble.

Where do I start? Well, when I think about writing a student a recommendation letter, it all begins with the request from the student. How a student asks is important to me. Other than the student being graceful and intentional, which is a given, I’m a stickler for facetime and eye contact. I don’t like it when I get requests by email. When I do get one like this, even if I don’t have them in class anymore, it’s almost always from a student that I see on the regular. In my head I’m thinking, just come ask me! (I’ve long believed that email is abused, especially when it comes to interpersonal relations, but I digress.) When I get a recommendation request by email, I always ask the student to see me in person, to make time to look me in the eye, even if I know that I plan on writing it.

Next comes the decision to actually committing to writing it, saying yes. In my experiences, it seems like some teachers feel obligated to write a letter of recommendation when a student requests it. It’s like, they have to ask and we have to say yes, but that’s just a formality. I get that we want to help students as they begin writing their next chapter, but when did helping out a student turn into me agreeing to camp out in front of our computer for hours and hours to compose dozens of recommendation letters?

When it comes down to it, I don’t mind saying no. If I don’t feel connected to the student, if I don’t feel like I’m the right person to tell their story, then I will simply tell them so. This might result in awkwardness, but I’d rather be upfront and encourage the student to find someone else that can better capture them through the letter. If I know that if I’m not thrilled to write it, to be able to go on and on about the student and share personal stories, then I’m not the right person for the job. Besides, if I did write it, I’d most likely be dragging myself through it and the letter itself would probably end up being mediocre at best. In addition, there’s another reason why I will tell a kid no: I must have taught them for at least a year. If this is not the case, then I won’t even consider writing it. It’s not personal. There are lots of highs and lows in a school year and observing a young person navigate those peaks and valleys is critical to me being able to endorse them without reservation.

While telling a kid no is not my favorite thing to do, I also go the other way and say yes without even being asked. In recent years I’ve requested, and lowkey demanded, that I write a kid’s letter of recommendation without them even thinking about it. I’m so proud that I take ownership of them and want badly to be their advocate. It’s an honor that I want to take on.

When it comes down to actually writing the letter itself, I used to have a canned letter that I would modify a little for each student. It was bad. That was a while ago, and I’m so not proud of myself for shortchanging those kids. They deserved way more than how I chose to represent them. I respect the process so much more now, in large part because of Sam Shah. Several years years ago I read his post on recommendation letters and totally stole the questionnaire that he asks his students to complete. I’ve modified it some, but this questionnaire is by and large one of the best resources I have when it comes to writing the letters. Once you read through it, you’ll know why. It lets them tell the story. Couple this with personal anecdotes and other written reflections from students, and the tone is set.

Through all this, I’ve even begun tinkering with the structure of each letter depending on the student and how I feel about them. For example, my letters these days often don’t start and end the same way. And playing around with these aspects of the letters makes them way more fun to write. Must they look and feel the same? How can I get the letter look and feel like the student that I’m writing it for? Rethinking these sorts of things makes writing it more of a creative act for me. Even if they never get to read it, it also helps me pay respect to the student and all that they are and hope to become. This jives well with my post last year about being selfish when it comes to writing.

Interestingly, my school recently brought in someone from a top university to give us tips on how to write an effective letter of recommendation. I couldn’t attend, but I really wish I could have.

Ok, ok, enough procrastinating.



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