23rd May 2018
This guide is taken from the Know How Library, a tool on the Unifrog platform. Not sure whether to take the ACT or the SAT? Or how to give the perfect Oxbridge practice interview? The Know How Library is an easily searchable library of 100s of expert guides for both students and teachers, covering every aspect of the progression process. It is included as standard for Unifrog partner schools.
The College Board (who run the SAT, among other tests) describes the role of the teacher recommendation as an ‘honest appraisal… of a student’s academic performance and intellectual promise’.
Although - in contrast to a UCAS Reference - it’s not necessarily a statement about why the student is appropriate for a particular course - it is about the student’s academic performance and their intellectual promise.
Here are three important things to bear in mind:
- The Teacher LOR should demonstrate the student’s abilities and performance in the classroom.
- It’s good to include specific stories from the student’s time in the teacher’s class because anecdotes provide important colour.
- The whole thing should not exceed a page.
Teacher Letter of Recommendation vs Counsellor Letter of Recommendation
The Counsellor Letter of Recommendation is a very important part of a student’s application and is often said to carry more weight than a Teacher Recommendation. For detail check out our article on Counsellor Letters of Recommendation, but in short a Counsellor Recommendation provides a more general overview of the student within the student’s learning community. This includes covering extracurricular activities, as well as the student’s character (they might comment on the student’s integrity, honesty, etc.)
Fitting the teacher to the recommendation
Each student should discuss with their teacher recommenders what aspects of themselves they feel should be emphasised in the LORs. Part of this is about the student thinking through how their own strengths can be best matched to the characteristics that the schools to which they are applying are looking for - and then making sure that the teacher recommenders are each clear on this as well.
If a teacher feels they can’t write a letter that meets a particular student’s needs, the teacher and/or student should talk to the counsellor to reach a solution. Sometimes this means finding another recommender. However if a student is applying for a programme that heavily features subject matter particular to a given teacher’s expertise, that teacher really needs to provide a recommendation.
Writing a Teacher LOR starts with the student providing the teacher with all the information they need. The student can provide information using Unifrog’s Activities and Competencies tools to identify strengths and provide specific anecdotes for teachers to emphasize or recall in the LOR. In addition the Unifrog CV tool is an easy way for students to provide an overview of their experiences and accomplishments.
Having specific examples at hand before starting the letter of recommendation is essential. Teachers should have information presented to them by the student several weeks before the LOR needs to be completed.
Key things to include
Here are some key things to consider in Teacher Letters of Recommendation:
Describe the student compared to the rest of their learning community.
Examples of context:
It is worth noting that, as the only boy in the class, there was fairly stringent opposition to his thoughts at times. He was a very willing contributor to class discussion and brought a wealth of historical, in particular, knowledge to the table.
Arriving from an American High school, where literature had been studied broadly and with an emphasis on cultural context, Christian struggled at first with the rigorous demands of the IB course, particularly in providing the detailed commentary required when reading previously unseen works. He had a strong vocabulary and a good level of perception but began as possibly the weakest performing student in the class. By the end of the year he became one of the highest achieving pupils.
The ‘show don’t tell’ rule applies in Teacher LORs. It’s important to provide anecdotal evidence of a student's interest and engagement in classes.
Anecdotes don’t have to be epic in scale. A recommendation could discuss how the student dedicated themselves to overcoming the challenges of the course by scheduling appointments with teachers and changing habits in the classroom. If the student approached a task in an individual and innovative manner, this could speak volumes about their character.
Here is part of reference that offers few examples:
Valery has worked consistently and demonstrated that he is a talented and committed student who always tries his best. He can work effectively with other students to realize his artistic intentions, and can give and receive feedback. He reflects on his own work and approaches and makes good choices. Valery creates roles that are effective for the audience, and has a flair for performance. Valery can work across a range of styles and eagerly explores unfamiliar approaches, concepts and ideas.
Conversely, Teacher LORs with specific examples allow the reader to draw their own conclusions through tangible events. The Admission Officer, who must defend the application during admission committee meetings, will draw on the examples provided in the teacher reference. Here’s an extract from a LOR which offers good, concrete examples:
Juan has been known to become so involved in philosophical debates (a memorable occasion was a discussion of Marx’s “The Fetishism of Commodities”) that he stayed after class to keep the conversation going. Having witnessed his passionate participation in the Model United Nations in The Hague, it was not surprising to learn that Juan had been selected by Radio One in Belgium to participate in a discussion between international students about the recent American elections. As he spoke, Juan’s grasp of concepts like down-ballot results and populist movements contrasted strongly with the more predictable remarks of his peers. Clearly he had been taken the time to understand the election.
Describing the syllabus
A Teacher LOR does not need to describe the syllabus if it's a well known qualification like an A-level or International Baccalaureate - most admissions officers are familiar with these curricula. In addition admission committees will get a sense of academic skill sets through standardised testing like SAT, ACT or TOEFL.
However if a student’s test scores vary significantly from what might be expected given their academic grades, this would be important to elaborate on.
Teaching in US universities tends to be more discussion based than in universities in other countries. Therefore the universities want to know how the student contributes to the classroom environment.
In your Teacher LOR you should consider the question: will the student be part of the dialogue of an active learning community?
US universities have a stronger eye than most universities in other countries for curating a university community. Therefore during the admissions process admissions tutors are trying to figure out what kind of person a student will be.
US Universities are accustomed to students who contribute to the school community in a plethora of ways. Here’s an extract from a Teacher LOR:
I have rarely seen anything like this student’s tenacity during the group 4 project. His aim was to use lemons to drive a remote control car. By the end of the second project day he was still enhancing his set-up and had used a large amount of lemons in series and parallel to obtain the correct electric voltage and current. Many other students would have given up.
In your Teacher LOR you should consider the questions: will the student be an active member of a learning community? Will the student become a valued roommate, classmate or club member?