Tips for Teachers


Teacher recommendations should be very frank appraisals of a student’s academic performance and intellectual promise. They need your help in deciding if a student has the character and ability to function successfully in a highly competitive atmosphere. Being an “over achiever” and a “really nice person” would doom a student to failure at Stanford, who might be just fine at CSUN. Remember that you can help admissions officers by describing more than just the classroom work. Consider the nature of the mind at work, the student’s style, manner, and/or interaction with other students.

A recommendation should include:

  1. Courses you taught the candidate (include level and the grades received.)
  2. An evaluation of the candidate’s academic work, especially mention of “motivation, originality of approach, intellectual depth or breadth, and capacity for independent thought.” Specific examples are most helpful.
  3. Words to describe the applicant. How do others view him? Describe any special personal problems or strengths. Level of maturity; personal character; leadership ability; ability to handle pressure.
  4. An assessment of the candidate’s chance for success in a competitive environment. Perhaps a comparison with other students taught…”One of the top five students I have taught in my twenty year career.”
  5. Anecdotal reports are the most helpful to college admissions people. All the applicants are sophisticated thinkers…Doers…etc.” To actually cite an example of the work done for you. “Suzy’s comparison of Edith Wharton and Alfred E. Newman showed a fine grasp of…”
  6. Avoid global superlatives- unless you really mean it; more convincing are superlatives limited to specific areas. Rather than, “Susie is the best English student I have ever had,” you might write “Susie is an unusual English student in that both her creative and analytical work show a penetrating understanding of human nature.” Rather than, “He asks the best questions in the class,” try, “His questions are incisive, often getting to the essence of an issue.”
  7. Characterize the nature of the mind at work: Assimilative, speculative, analytical, original, perceptive, inventive, pragmatic, quick, careful, deliberate, whimsical, incisive, and precise.
  8. Characterize the nature of the work rather than just praising it; intuitive, detailed, creative, thorough, engaged, objective, original, savvy, intellectual, mundane, sketchy.
  9. Characterize the student’s style, manner, or interaction with other students: nonchalant, offbeat, conventional, humorous, detached, friendly, tolerant.
  10. Be credible: Oftentimes, admissions officers say that many recommendations are meaningless because they add nothing or they portray idealized versions of kids. Be honest. If a student got less than an A in your class, something that wasn’t perfect, so address it. If a student got less than an A, you can still help him by highlighting aspects of his character and work that are note worthy. Recommendations are about more than just grades. Sometimes, the reasons why john didn’t get an A are even more admirable or can be turned to advantage in writing about him.


How to Compose a Letter of Recommendation

Suggestions from Stanford Admissions

Notes taken by Lauren Marshman

1.      Is the student academically capable?

  • Passionate about learning
  • Can you get admissions officer engaged on the same topic when you write about it?

2.      Is he/she a superstar in context?

  • What is the distance traveled?
  • How far have they come since the beginning?

3.      What is the point of excellence?

  • “The student gets the A, but goes beyond the A by doing…”

4.      What contributions to Stanford would he/she make?

  • Personal qualities, growth, resiliency?

5.      Focus on the candidate

  • Avoid talking about Galileo too much
  • Avoid talking about yourself as the teacher
  • Each applicant is a new student, careful about cutting and pasting

6.      Use quotations judiciously

7.      State beyond the obvious

  • Nuances of student’s impact

8.      It’s a letter, not laundry list!

  • Shed light on different things, not just the obvious

9.      Be conscious of your creditability

  • Letters can help, but they can never hurt

10.  Remember your audience, and remember that they have to read 30,000 applicants!

  • Readable font
  • Quality over quantity
  • Powerful can be short