Teacher Recommendations: The Importance of What’s NOT Written

By Daniel Lieu

Teachers have many roles beyond teaching itself. Behind teaching, there’s lesson planning, grading, creating student-centered lessons, getting to know students personally, and in the end, helping students get into college by writing letters of recommendations. Just as teachers design lessons that are geared towards the prior knowledge and understanding of the students within the classroom, letters of recommendations go beyond generic templates and are unique to the learners that we have the privilege of growing and understanding over the course of the academic school year.

Letter of recommendations are actually incredibly difficult for me to write. As a sophomore and senior teacher, I have the honor of seeing many of my students when they’re 14-15 years old in my Principles of Engineering class and again when they’re 17-18 years old in my AP Biology course. That’s around 3 years of growing to learn and understand who a student is and the best of all, seeing them develop and mature into who they really are.

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I see them discover their passions and interests, go from a timid sophomore to a talkative and confident senior, and work with them to build their life skills in and out of the classroom during this process. Seeing the development of the kids that I work with and knowing that I can be an influence during this process is the foundation of why I love my job. When they come and ask me for a letter of recommendation, I have 1 page to summarize why I believe that my student will be a great fit for this college. It plays a huge role in the admissions process and I have to ensure what is said can wrap up everything I know about the student that makes them amazing in a way that is articulate and detailed, yet concise.

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It’s nearly impossible to write the entire development of a student that I see in a page. I’ve realized over the years that letters of recommendations are not just about what is written, but also what is not. A college may be looking for a specific trait or characteristic in their applicants, just like how an employer is often looking for a specific skill set or qualification. Including that is a critical component of letters of recommendation. Is it included within the recommendation letter itself?  If not, why? Unfortunately for students, colleges do not follow up and ask teachers for clarification on whether they just forgot to write about it. For example, if a college is looking for students who are intrinsically motivated and self-starters, whether a teacher writes about it makes an impact.

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Daniel Lieu
Daniel is a high school science and Project Lead the Way teacher in Los Angeles, CA. He earned his BS in Biology from UCI, MS in Educational technology from California State University, Fullerton, and is currently working on his PhD in Education. Outside of teaching, he loves hiking, fishing, and exploring new food places with his fiancée.