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How to promote impactful and effective teacher recommendations

Lauren Hoyt, Senior Associate Director of College Counseling at The Hill School, shares best practices on writing effective teacher recommendations

Cialfo Community
September 7, 2021
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6 min read

    Writing impactful and effective teacher recommendations

    1. Thoughtful selection
    2. Getting students to do a reflection
    3. How counselors can support teachers
    4. Suggested structure for the letter of recommendation: Bullet point forma

    Teacher letters of recommendation are a crucial aspect of the application process. Learn how you as a counselor can better support your colleagues and students in producing effective and impactful letters of recommendation.

    Thoughtful selection

    Gather comments that teachers may have written previously regarding a student’s performance or character in the past. If your school doesn’t have a process for recording and compiling teacher comments, you can even refer to things like report card comments. This is useful in helping students make a decision on which teacher would best be able to write them an effective and meaningful recommendation, as it gives them some insight into which teachers know them well and are able to speak to their strengths and character.

    It’s important to ground the choice of teacher in what is authentic for the student, as authenticity is an important factor that admissions officers look for. Students who are overly competitive may feel pressured to make strategic choices in order to control the narrative or push it in a particular direction, but this may not work well.

    Getting students to do a reflection

    Before teachers start writing the recommendation letter, a helpful starting point is for students to write a reflection on their experience in the classroom, jotting down notes on their successes and weaknesses and even what their goals are. This can be an independent exercise. Alternatively, counselors may provide students with a list of guiding questions to help prompt and focus their reflection.

    Often, adding in this reflection step has the added benefit of giving teachers a different perspective on the student and their experiences that makes for a more effective letter of recommendation. It also helps the teacher focus on what’s important and do justice to the student’s experiences and achievement in their letters.

    How counselors can support teachers

    Ideally, students should make it a point to ask teachers to write them a letter of recommendation personally and face-to-face. Counselors should make it clear to teachers that they can decline the student’s request to write a letter of recommendation if they do not feel they’d benefit the student. 

    Training sessions and one-on-one guidance for new teachers who are new to writing letters of recommendation can be helpful. These teachers may also benefit from counselors helping review their letters before sending them off. 

    Setting internal deadlines is another way of minimizing the stress students, parents and teachers face during this busy application season. 

    Suggested format for the letter of recommendation: Bullet point format

    Providing teachers with guidelines on structure and/or content helps ensure their letters are focused and effective. At The Hill School, Hoyt and her colleagues find the bullet point format particularly effective. They structure their recommendations according to the following structure:

    1. Academic strengths: skills, study habits, writing, participation, etc.
    2. Classroom citizenship: details and anecdotes about participation, collaboration, active listening, contributions, soft skills, etc.
    3. Reaction to setbacks: determination, resilience, effort, ability to apply constructive feedback, etc.
    4. Intellectual ability: scholarship, intuitiveness, analytical skills, etc.

    Among other things, following a prescribed format helps keep teachers on track when writing their recommendations. Utilizing bullet points also helps encourage prioritization of the most important points, while also ensuring selected anecdotes are relevant and concise.

    A big thank you to Lauren Hoyt, Senior Associate Director of College Counseling at The Hill School, sharing her insights and advice on the teacher recommendation writing process.

    Image credits: Max Fischer and Angelina Litvin

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