And, obviously, as a college counselor and independent educational consultant, I frequently talk with students about their letters of recommendation.
I have seen good ones, bad ones, and anything in between.
For this post, I would like to share my experience with two very different kinds of letters of recommendation—the best and the worst I have ever read—and what you can learn from them.
The Worst Letter of Recommendation—A Cautionary Tale
Dear Admission Committee:
This student was in my class for a year. I can say with confidence that they were the smartest student I had in this class because, from day one, they never broke a sweat. They mastered the material, knew all the answers, and received a perfect score for every test. There was no idea or concept presented by me or the textbook that they did not fully understand. In the end, they received the highest grade possible.
You may be asking yourself, “And this was the worst letter of recommendation?” – Yes.
- The teacher did not tell me anything I did not already know.
Grades and classes are one of the most important parts of the college application. As an admission officer, the first thing I do is look at to the transcript. So I already knew what grade the student received in that class.
The teacher only told me what I already knew, but never gave me any insight into how the student got to those grades. They just simply knew the information already.
- The letter did not convey anything about the depth or the personality of the student in the classroom.
There were no answers to: What did the student do when things got hard? Did they ever display the habits of a scholar? Did they ever challenge themselves?
True scholars sometimes struggle. When they do, they collaborate, they ask for clarification, and sometimes, they arrive at the wrong answer. But then, they back out, examine their steps, and take another crack at it, finding the right answer—on their second or third try. That process helps them to understand ideas and concepts better. This student apparently did none of that.
The Best Letter of Recommendation—An Example of What You Could Strive For
Dear Admission Committee:
This student was certainly not the best student in my class this year. At the beginning of the course, they struggled a lot, they did not work to their potential, and they displayed some habits that were disappointing. I knew they could be more mature, more diligent, and more responsible than they were. Therefore, for the first semester, the student only earned a very low C.
But then, they turned it around and put more effort into their work. Yet, they did not just simply appeal to me on a personal level to see if they could get a better grade or if I could overlook something like other students had done before. No, they sincerely and substantively started changing their behavior as a scholar. They stayed after class, redid work that was not acceptable, asked questions, engaged with their peers in class, and came to my office hours.
Slowly and steadily, they brought up their grade to a high C by the end of the year. While that is not an outstanding grade, there has never been a student in my class who put this level of effort into learning, regardless of the grade they received in the end.
I have never forgotten that letter. It was very powerful—the best.
- The letter showed what the student did when their situation was difficult.
Of course, it can be counterproductive when a teacher says a lot of negative things about a student in their letter of recommendation. But, in the end, this particular letter showed what the student did when things got hard, and the effort they put into turning things around, even if they did not get the highest grade at the end of the course.
The lesson for you?
This was preparation for college. Because in college and after college, things will—and should—get hard. In fact, you should challenge yourself. And, you should fail sometimes.
The question is: What do you do when that happens?
Have you acquired the experience to know what to do? Do you have the traits of a scholar to see it through?
There is no formula. This is a life lesson.
Who Should You Choose to Write Your Letters of Recommendation?
Keeping the worst and best letter examples in mind is crucial when you decide who to ask for writing your letters of recommendation.
Generally, you would need to choose two teachers who know you well as a student, who have seen you work hard.
I recommend that you do not just think about the teachers who you like the most, who you think are fun, or with whom you had a great time because they also happened to be your coach on a sports team.
Yes, those are good clues about what teacher may be a good choice for writing a letter of recommendation. However, go beyond that.
Sometimes, it is that teacher who is not your favorite—the one who is tough on you—who may be the better choice. Why? Because it is very possible that this heads-down, serious, wanting-to-teach-you-something-and-knows-their-subject-very-well kind of teacher may actually produce the letter that will stand out to the college admission officer.
The Bottom Line
I once shared a long car ride with a retired Dean of Admission at a highly selective university as we were visiting colleges together. He noted that what colleges are looking for in the letters of recommendation is that at least one of them vouches for the student, saying that this is a great individual and great scholar.
So, ask yourself: “Who is that teacher who will go to bat for me?”
I am an Independent Educational Consultant with many years of experience in college counseling and the college admission process. It would be my pleasure to discuss with you strategies for submitting great letters of recommendation that help you stand out.