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What Do Teachers Write in College Reference Letters?

by Trudie Longren, studioD

The letter of reference is a crucial component of a college application. Teachers called on to write references struggle to reach a balance between an accurate portrayal of a candidate's academic, extracurricular and personal profile and a convincing picture of a student who will flourish in a college environment. While each letter of reference is specific to the individual applicant, teachers must address certain key factors to facilitate a favorable decision by the admissions committee.

Academic Promise

Teachers write about the academic promise of the student based on their personal knowledge of that student's performance in secondary courses or extracurricular activities, giving specific examples of why the student is well placed to excel in college-level studies. The letters examine the academic achievements of the student, particularly her performance in courses known to or taught by the teacher. The letters also explain the student's critical thinking skills and ability to effectively communicate both verbally and in writing.


Letters of recommendation address the student's interests outside of the classroom in student organizations or extracurricular activities, including leadership roles, achievements and awards. The letters can aid the admission committee to discover a fuller picture of a candidate's potential by describing a student's individual pursuits in activities, such as a debate society, chess team or swimming squad. Letters paint a portrait of the student that is not readily available from test scores or an individual essay, by communicating specific examples of dedication and hard work in other school activities.

Conveying the Story

Every student application has a story to convey to the admissions committee, which is aided by the content of the teacher recommendation. The teacher recommendation -- by giving examples of specific events or moments that influenced the student's decision to pursue higher education -- enhances the narrative communicated in the student's own essay. Consequently, the recommendation supports the student's story and demonstrates the teacher's own confidence in the student's ability to succeed in her chosen field.

Explaining Irregularities

Teacher recommendations include an explanation of irregularities in a student's records, including unusually low grades. Giving context to irregularities by noting in the letter any academic difficulties or personal adversity endured by a student can aid an admissions committee to correctly interpret grades or other data that could otherwise negatively affect an application. Teachers include such information in their recommendation to demonstrate a student's ability to respond to setbacks.

About the Author

Trudie Longren began writing in 2008 for legal publications, including the "American Journal of Criminal Law." She has served as a classroom teacher and legal writing professor. Longren holds a bachelor's degree in international politics, a Juris Doctor and an LL.M. in human rights. She also speaks Spanish and French.

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