Letter Writing

Logistics and letter writing tips

Logistics: Timeline and format

Most colleges require recommendations from teachers who have taught the student in junior or senior year in one of the five core academic areas.

Through the College Knowledge course students reach out to two teachers to write recommendation letters. Students will confirm their recommenders by May, well in advance of the October 15 due date for letters of teacher recommendation

Once teachers agree to write a recommendation, students must confirm through email their college application list if they are applying to a school with an early (ie October 15th) deadline, in which case teachers are requested to complete their letter by October 1.

All faculty recommendations must be written on the official D-E School letterhead which is available in Google Drive. Recommendation letters must include the student’s official name at the top of the document.

Students may seek supplemental recommendations at different points during the application process, i.e. if they are deferred from an early to regular admission pool or if they are wait-listed. If students are applying to particular programs they may seek recommendations from faculty or coaches in those areas. These letters should be kept to a minimum, do not take the place of required teacher recommendations and should be pursued with guidance from the student’s college counselor.

Applications will not be considered complete for review until all required credentials including recommendations are received. In order to lessen the ever-present anxiety of the college application process, we respectfully request that all faculty complete their letters of recommendation by October 15. 


Letter writing tips: What to include and what to leave out

The Power of Words – What Colleges Want to Know*

Colleges ask for recommendation letters to learn more about:

  • A brief explanation of the course(s) you have taught the student and the standards of the class(es). Note: PLEASE use the course title as it appears on the transcript: e.g., don’t call a course Basic Precalculus if it is called Precalculus.
  • The student’s attitude toward learning and their specific skills and abilities/talents as demonstrated within the context of your class as you have observed the student.  (Use anecdotes to support these statements whenever possible — show, don’t tell!)
  • The student’s unique qualities, or reasons they might stand out: intellectual prowess; maturity; motivation; consistency of performance; independence; originality of thought; creativity; initiative; leadership potential/”followship” potential (i.e. knowing when to lead and when to follow); self-confidence; humility; capacity for personal growth; enthusiasm; energy; ability to communicate well either verbally or in writing; peer relationships; support for fellow students within the class; resilience/positive reactions to setbacks; ability to learn from mistakes or grow stronger in the subject over time; etc. etc. 

What colleges DON’T find useful in recommendation letters:

  • Sweeping generalizations that are not supported by anecdotes or evidence
  • Information already on the transcript or application (grades, scores – in fact you shouldn’t discuss a student’s standardized scores without knowledge/permission of the student)
  • Long quotes directly from the student — it’s ok to quote a student’s comments, but use them judiciously, and briefly.  Colleges want your evaluation of your student, not their own evaluation of themselves.
  • Personal idiosyncrasies of the student (this is not the time to air your frustrations if they aren’t directly relevant to the student’s performance!)


What you MAY NOT discuss in a letter without express written consent of the family:

(Stay away from the following unless you have discussed this with the College Counselor first and gotten written permission from the family as well; there could be legal implications!)

  • Learning differences, including using extra time on tests
  • Personal appearance!
  • Confidential medical information (concussions, illnesses, frequent absences due to illness or emotional issues)
  • Disciplinary issues  (always talk with the Dean/College Counselor about this)
  • Suspicions about a student’s behavior/integrity — suspicions in general should not be discussed, since this information cannot be proved. (This falls under the “sweeping generalizations” category.) 

Hint: What you don’t say can be as powerful as what you do say.  The old adage, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything” can speak volumes in a recommendation.  Admissions officers are trained to read between the lines.  But if you really don’t have anything nice to say, PLEASE don’t agree to write a recommendation for that student!


*Excerpted and Adapted from The Power of the Word: Coaching Teachers Toward Powerful Recommendation Letters, Michele Klaus and Patricia Brubaker, Gilmour Academy, Gates Mills, OH


Tips for writing effective letters: 

Check out this blog entry from Jeff Schiffman, the Director of Admissions at Tulane University, if you are looking for starting points or tips.