Although the media hyped up the fact that former first lady Michelle Obama had written a recommendation for Blackish star Yara Shahidi, I’m sure that Shahidi’s grades, acting success, and coursework rigor had just a bit to do with her getting accepted to every college she applied to.
Recommendations That Open Doors
OK, certainly a recommendation from any former first lady, furthermore from Michelle Obama, carries outsized weight, but what about those of us who don’t know Mrs. Obama personally?
I spoke with Shawna-Kaye Lester, writing coach and founder of Memorable Essay, a writing service that helps students write their way into college and graduate school. The first thing I learned from Lester? Most colleges want recommendations from teachers and counselors—not friends of the family.
But, if a friend is writing a recommendation for you, “A general tip is to provide a view of the student that is impossible for counselors and teachers to offer. For example, how the student behaves when there is no tangible ‘reward’ for their behavior, how they have impacted you, their motivation for volunteering, or how they respond to failure in their personal lives,” Lester advises.
The following tips from Lester explain how school counselors and teachers can make the most of recommendation letters.
5 Tips for Writing Recommendation Letters
1. Schedule time for writing and submitting student recommendation letters.
If you are a school counselor or teacher, students will ask you to write on their behalf, and you will need uninterrupted blocks of time in which to do so.
2. Meet with the student.
It is important to get to know what differentiates this student from their classmates. If a student has not taken the time to develop a relationship with you throughout their high school years, having a 30- to 60-minute meeting with them can help you understand their unique value.
3. Use at least one anecdote to help the selection committee understand how the student contributes to their high school community.
Speak about a way in which the student is consistently helpful to you or other staff members; tell a story that shows how they positively influence their classmates; or share an encounter with them that made you realize what they value.
4. Write a unique letter instead of using a template.
A predictable letter does not help your student’s candidacy, and your role is to help them improve their chances of being admitted. So, a short letter that includes specific praise for a candidate is better than a long, hackneyed one.
5. Ask the student about their motivation to attend college.
The reason a student wants a college education can be a powerful testament to their character. Take the time to drill down to their true motivation by asking,“Why?” three to five times.
For example, if you ask a student, Sharon, why she wants to go to college, she might say, “To become an investment banker.” Asking more why’s can lead to a conversation like this:
“I would like to make a lot of money.”
If you stop here, you might mischaracterize Sharon.
“I would like to be independent in the future.”
“Because my parents have had to struggle to send me and my brother to high school.”
“Because they didn’t go to college, and they also support my grandmother. I know I’ll have to take care of them and my grandmother one day.”
A student who, a few minutes ago, seemed motivated solely by money, is actually a mature student motivated by a deep sense of family loyalty.
To learn more, visit Memorable Essay.