When it comes to gathering teacher recommendation letters, I start with four words for high school juniors: ask for them now. Your favorite teachers need the time to write them, especially if they are also the favorite teachers for several of your classmates.
There are two kinds of teacher recommendation letters: good and bad. To show examples what is part of a good letter as well as a bad one I received some help from Heath Einstein, Director of Freshman Admissions at Texas Christian University. He recently addressed teachers on this very subject.
Who should your student approach for teacher recommendation letters?
My suggestion is to choose teachers that your student has gotten to know well, preferably one that s/he has taken more than one class. Even better, choose teachers who teach the subjects related to what s/he plans to study.
For example, if s/he plans to study engineering, the most meaningful recommendation letters are likely to come from science or math teachers. A college admissions officer might become concerned about an application for a major when a student does not have a recommendation from a teacher who teaches a related subject. This will be true for engineering, the sciences and health professions. It will be especially true for students who are interested in a talent-based major such as art, music or theater. Those who want to become journalists should have a teacher to validate their writing ability. This might be true for students who are interested in education–most good teachers could probably comment on whether a student could be a elementary or high school teacher.
A teacher who was a coach or advisor for an extracurricular activity could also be a fine reference. However, the activity should be one that your student stayed involved, and moved into more important roles as he was involved. Advancement to become president of a club, edit of a newspaper or literary magazine or a team captain will make a stronger impression with an admissions officer than being a member who was less engaged.
If your student is not presenting a strong academic record to an admissions office, it does not mean that s/he should ask only the teachers who gave the best grades. If that student received their best grades in a subject that is not considered to be “college prep.” for example gym or an elective “History of Sports” class. That might work for a recruited athlete who is not seeking admission to a selective college, but probably no one else. A good college admissions office, no matter how selective, strongly prefers to admit students who can do college-level work. That office will look more favorably at teacher recommendation letters from teachers in college-prep subjects such as English, Math, Social Studies, Foreign Language and Science.
What should teacher recommendation letters be?
Authentic, for one. It should define the teacher/student relationship as if the teacher knew the student in class and was familiar with their work as well as their academic progress. Heath Einstein mentions that a reference should give examples of quality work or improvement over the course of a semester or school year. Teacher recommendation letters should not appear formulaic, as if a reference for one student sounded eerily like a reference for another. This is going to be a concern at a college admissions office that receives several applications from the same high school. If the same teacher, for example, write recommendations for more than a pair of students who are applying to the same college, and they read like a form letter, chances are that all of those students could be denied at a school that has an exceptionally-selective admissions process.
As close to perfect in grammar and spelling. There’s no excuse for incorrect spelling given modern word processing programs. While grammar does not need to be flowering prose, it should show that the teacher made the effort to respect the reader. If you hear of teachers who might have rushed teacher recommendation letters for your classmates, get to those teachers when they have more time to write the letter or find another teacher who has more time to write it. True, teachers have many responsibilities; sometimes they work after school. You need to find the one who will take the time to show enthusiasm as well as write a strong letter.
A story of accomplishments related to school, but not a restatement of anything else in a student’s application.Teacher recommendation letters should not sound like a student’s resume or personal statement. They should not discuss extracurricular activities outside of school where the teacher was not involved. It would be one thing for a music teacher, as one example, to talk about how a prospective music major slowly became a more accomplished musician, even writing songs, as well as the member of a school band. It would be quite another thing for the teacher to talk about how that student performed in a church choir or orchestra, or formed a band to perform at weddings.
Honest. High school students are in high school. If they have attained excellence it is excellence versus other high school students. A high school teacher who writes that a student writes at a level that “she could join the New York Times tomorrow,” or that s/he could “win American Idol,” is going to be taken far less seriously than a teacher who gets into detail about how that same student learned to master the pieces that would be required for a college audition. At the same time, the teacher should not dwell so heavily on a student’s weak points that the admissions officer wonders “why this student?” A good admissions officer at a reasonably selective school will question the student’s judgement if that student chose such a reference.
There are, of course, many colleges that do not request teacher recommendation letters, including very large universities where the admissions officers would not have the time to read them. Those schools will place more emphasis on grades, test scores as well as a personal statement. However, all students applying to college should have two or three teacher recommendation letters available to the admissions office. They could helpful not only in getting into a college, but also towards receiving a scholarship or an invitation to a special learning opportunity.
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