College Letters

I have been very busy of late finishing college letters of recommendation; I actually enjoy writing them; it gives me time to reflect on why I like teaching students. A former colleague, Joy App, sent this to me after a recent conversation we had about this topic. By policy, I do not write negative letters; however, if I cannot write one for a student, I will tell that student to seek another member of the faculty. Case in point: A few years ago I had a student that earned the highest marks on both my AP US and AP European history exam; she was bright and did good work. But, she never engaged herself  during class discussions, nor did she take time to visit me or chat with me outside of class. Because of these factors, I told her I could not write her a letter. If I did, it would say the exact same thing as her resume.


• Make the recommendation as specific, personal, and anecdotal as


• Qualify your adjectives

• Provide specifics but not as much related to the paper he wrote on the

civil war, but rather about how he bounced back after a bad test or helped

out a sick student

• Make the recommendations more evaluative than descriptive

• Tell us what the student is like outside of class as well from your


• Feel free to add a hand-written note at the bottom of the letter,

specifically addressing the candidacy for Middlebury

• Tell us how the applicant stacks up in the class or in your teaching career

• Relay the student’s involvement in class discussions and the role that s/he plays—does s/he take discussions

to the next level or play the devil’s advocate?

• Give us a reason why we should admit the student

• Maintain your credibility by not going overboard

• Include a couple of weaknesses (to make him or her sound real!)

• Take the time to write at least a page


• Spend half your letter telling us about your course or your credentials

• Mention the physical appearance or attractiveness of the student

• Send the same letter for many kids

• Merely provide a list of adjectives

• Write us three pages

• Report a list of the applicant’s activities since we know them already from reading the application

• Make sweeping generalizations that you do not substantiate

Remember, writing can always be misinterpreted. We leave you with some humorous one-liners we have seen

in past letters.

“I look forward to John’s final term at the school.”

“This young lady has no problems to speak of.”

“No one wants to play soccer worse than he does.”

…but are they happy, caring and well-adjusted human-beings?


5 thoughts on “College Letters

  1. I definitely should have had you write at least one of my letters. To think: I could have gone to school at Duke instead of Harding. Oh well. Actually, I should have gone anywhere I got in except Harding. Why didn’t you tell me that? Why didn’t anyone tell me that?

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