For College Recommendation Letters, Teachers’ Methods Differ

A bulletin board in the college counseling office. Photo by Nick von Hindenburg.

After a 45-minute interview with a student and a lengthy writing process, history teacher Richard Avidon completes his first letter of recommendation for the school year. On average, he writes nine or ten letters of recommendation yearly. Usually, he’ll begin the writing process in the fall.

When it comes time in early spring to start preparing to apply to college, GDS juniors go to teachers and request letters of recommendation, Emily Livelli, the director of college counseling, told the Bit. Though teachers want to represent their students in the best light possible for colleges, their approaches to writing strong letters of recommendation are often different.

Juniors request letters of recommendation from their teachers during a three-week period in late winter or early spring, Livelli explained. Students keep track of the teachers who agree to write their recommendation letter using a form the college counseling office gives them. Generally, students request two letters of recommendation, though some colleges allow for only one letter. 

Despite the amount of time writing a letter of recommendation takes, Avidon, who has been teaching at GDS since 1988, has never refused to write one for a student, though he has told certain students that they may benefit from asking a different teacher. “I am a believer in making sure that you don’t just say great things because then it’s a meaningless letter,” he told the Bit

Senior Jacqueline Metzger said that both of the teachers she received her letters from required a brief interview. During the interviews, they asked questions about Metzger’s activities outside of school and learned about the factors that had made her pick them to write her letter of recommendation. 

Instead of reaching out to the teachers who gave her the best grades, Metzger chose teachers who had seen her grow the most throughout the year and who knew her personality the best. 

“I enjoyed the process,” Metzger said. “Teachers feel good when they are chosen.”

Prior to requesting a letter, students meet with a college counselor and start talking about their letters of recommendation, according to Livelli.

When students make requests for letters of recommendation, “it is a dialogue, and it is a request, not a demand or an assumption,” Livelli said. Teachers will sign the form and the student will return it to the college counseling office so that they can keep a record of the teacher’s agreement to write a recommendation letter.

“I think they’re really important,” Livelli said. “It is a narrative assessment of a student’s presence and contribution to the classroom.” 

Like Avidon, English teacher Nadia Madhi, who came to GDS in 2014, said that she has never refused to write a recommendation letter for a student; she often ends up writing over 15 letters per year, since she teaches juniors. This year, she’s written 17 recommendation letters.

When grading assignments over the course of the school year, she writes feedback for students. When writing grade reports at the end of each semester, she includes both the positive and negative information. However, “when I’m writing the letter of recommendation, I call all the highlights. I take out all of the places for improvement,” Mahdi said. “I don’t think a recommendation letter is a place to include negative information.”

However, Avidon believes that when a letter of recommendation is honest about a student’s strengths as well as their flaws, the letter will give better insight to colleges about who the student is. Avidon said that over the years, he’s written letters for students who received Cs in his class. Letters for students who didn’t perform well “pique the interest of the school” the student is applying to, Avidon said.

Science teacher Greg Dallinger said, “I’ve never had a situation where a student that I would have anything negative to say about has asked me for a letter. It’s always kids that I just have good things to say about.” Dallinger explained that students who had him for both sophomore and junior year chemistry will usually ask him for letters of recommendation, since he’s able to develop a relationship with them over the course of two years. 

According to senior Ally Brangham, most students request a letter from a STEM teacher and another from a humanities teacher. However, after talking with her college counselor, Brangham decided that requesting letters from only her humanities teachers would be more beneficial to her college applications. “I thought my best one would come from only humanities teachers,” she said. 

Only one of her teachers required an interview, but neither teachers required an email or made the process stressful and complicated, she said.

According to Avidon, writing letters of recommendation “feels like something you have to do, because it’s important not to leave the kids without anybody.”