How to Write a Recommendation Letter for a Student: Teacher’s Guide + Samples

To whom it may concern:

You look at Jordan’s application, and the story writes itself—fantastic test scores, pathetic grades, weak extracurriculars–anyone would look at those and think “smart, but doesn’t apply himself—will huddle in his dorm playing video games until he flunks out. Next!” That’s the obvious, easy interpretation—it’s how a lot of us interpreted him, for years—but it couldn’t be further from the truth. Please, please, please take a deeper look at this application and consider giving him the chance he needs to demonstrate the amazing young man that he is.

First, bluntly, Jordan is a victim of sustained abuse. CPS has been called, the situation has been mitigated, we are watching him, but by the time we became aware of this, much of the damage had been done. As a freshman, he sat in my class with a flat affect and refused to answer questions or do homework. He often looked exhausted. I assumed—we all assumed—he was a student who really didn’t want to be in our specialized STEM program and he was committing academic suicide so that he could return to his home school. I did ask if there was anything wrong at home, but he very convincingly blew that off. It wasn’t until his sophomore year that the situation was revealed to us, and even then, it came in bits and pieces—he kept talking about “corporal punishment” and really didn’t seem to understand that bruises up and down your arms and knees stiff from hours of kneeling were not a “dark quirk of culture”–which was how he rationalized this to himself. The abuse came entirely at the hands of his father, and while the physical punishment has stopped, it is still not a happy or healthy household. Jordan has learned some hard lessons at his father’s hands, and they continue to affect him.

First, Jordan is a stubborn son-of a-bitch. He has a perfect poker face—I think you could cut his fingers off and he wouldn’t flinch. That stoic face is his way of deflecting others, of avoiding notice or interaction, but it’s also his way of not giving in to his father—in a situation where he had no control and no way out, he at least made sure not to give anyone the satisfaction of seeing him hurt. I admire that in him, but it worked against him here: we didn’t reach out as quickly as we should have, we didn’t push him enough, because we didn’t really think he gave a damn about anything. It’s a mistake that haunts me. But at the same time, I know that rock-solid perseverance will be an asset to him. His perspective on what counts as a “challenge” is entirely different from other students his own age, and while I’m sure he will face real challenges as a student and as an adult, he will have the unimaginable luxury of being able to respond to those challenges, to act. After what he has been through, he will always see that opportunity as a gift to be taken advantage of.

There are other lessons I wish he hadn’t learned so well: he’s been taught that he isn’t entitled to anything—not love, not support, not safety. It stops him from asking for help when he should, and it’s going to be a long path for him to learn that he’s allowed to expect things from the people that love him. He’s learned that strength is about enduring, not advancing—his hero is his mother, a war refugee who has fought her whole life to survive. His own situation is exasperated by his father’s emphasis on success: every ambition Jordan ever developed—from spelling bee to karate to academic success—turned into a justification for rage and abuse when he “failed”–and it didn’t matter how far he advanced, as long as there was anyone anywhere who achieved at a higher level, he was made a target. I have no doubt Jordan will be successful at school, in the sense that he will graduate in 4 years with reasonably good grades. I hope for more, though— that he will find a community that teaches him that it’s safe to want things, to fight for them.

He’s very slowly opening up to a few of us, and we’re discovering a wonderful young man. Even when he appeared to be a sullen 14-year old, I liked him, though I couldn’t have told you why—mostly I liked the way his face and body language reacted when we discussed literature, because it was the sort of reaction that showed me he was sensitive, sympathetic, and sophisticated in his worldview. He also genuinely loves learning: his SAT scores show you that he’s plenty capable, but the AP scores show more—that even when he couldn’t do homework, he always wanted to learn and understand. Even when he was staring off into space, he was paying attention. He’s passed seven AP exams already–and the two he didn’t pass were taught by teachers who are . . . strongly authoritarian, which did not encourage his best. He has a fantastic sense of humor; it’s hard to make him smile—but when he does, it’s in response to something truly clever.

Jordan is going to break this cycle and turn into the sort of person who speaks out against the sort of hell he faced. He has so, so much to give if only we can get him to a safe space where he can undo some of the damage done to him and start to rebuild himself. If you have any questions or concerns, please don’t hesitate to contact me. I mean that.


Amanda Ashmead, Humanities Chair

Another Outlier Student Example

To whom it may concern:

Taylor is a bit of an anachronism. He’s been raised by his grandparents using a model that was honestly a little old-fashioned when they were raising their own kids: it’s all early to bed, early to rise, plenty of chores, and you aren’t going to spend all summer sitting around young man, you can be chopping wood and mowing lawns to save for college. There was also a great deal of unconditional love and mutual respect. Together, that combination has shaped a strong-minded, hard-working, ethical and rational young man who manages to be both socially awkward and oddly charming.

Taylor has an interesting brain. He soaks up information like a sponge, reading at the very highest level: he has an enormous, robust vocabulary and is comfortable with long and archaic texts. He reads the way a person reads when raised by grandparents who didn’t believe in screentime and who were happy to find him some chores if he were bored. He talks all that information and files it away in some crazy system, the cognitive equivalent of a Mad Scientist’ journals. I know this is true because he makes connections that are at times brilliant, at times spurious, and always interesting. He processes everything through quirky analogies, odd comparisons, and non-intuitive connections. When the connections are spurious, he’s very polite and very willing to listen to the counter-argument, but never blindly accepts someone else’s point of view—Taylor has to come to his own understanding. Luckily, all that information and all those connections mean that his own understanding is very complex, and while he at times gets lost in the forest of his own vast mind, he always finds his way back.

Taylor’s incredible ability to read is matched by a strong narrative voice: he’s a good writer. Here, again, there’s a tendency to organize information in a way that’s somewhat counterintuitive—the order that makes sense to him, his sense of what is important and what is detail—is sometimes a little non-typical, but there’s an undeniable brilliance there and a strong natural voice. I always genuinely looked forward to reading his essays. He’s much more interested in ideas than in people: even in literary analysis he always wanted to quickly bypass questions of character and motivation and get into the really complex abstract ideas underlying the personal.

Taylor is a hard worker with absolutely no expectations of short-term gratification. He’s very willing to set a long term goal and work toward it in stages, and supremely confident that if the plan is good and he does what he needs to do, it will work out in the end—however far away that is. He was raised in a household where hard-work and self-reliance and general competency were important virtues, and he’s adopted that worldview without hesitation.

Taylor would be a wonderful addition to any academic community. He’s absolutely academically on par with any of his peers, but his background, his frame of reference, his sense of how things connect is so unique that he can’t help but inspire true intellectual dialogue. He’s patient and polite and respectful and he truly loves to learn. I highly recommend him.

If you have any questions or concerns, please don’t hesitate to contact me.


Amanda Ashmead

These are great, but I’d like to shake things up. Is there another way?

Yes! And it’s about dang time.

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