By Yuki Kondo-Shah, Public Affairs Officer, U.S. Consulate Fukuoka

Since many Japanese high school teachers are not familiar with U.S.-style recommendation letters, many of the letters I read during my time as an admission officer were overly formal, emphasized the student’s obedience or conformity, and focused on the grades earned in the classroom.

But that misses the point. The main goal of the teacher recommendation letter is to get the university excited about your student!

Rather than focusing on how the student fits in well within the context of the Japanese high school, our recommendation would be to look for ways to highlight the individual student’s success. Why would this student do well in an international environment like an American university campus? What makes this student stand out? How does the student interact with his/her classmates and school community? Is s/he an inspiring role model or mentor to other students? These are the types of characteristics that American universities are looking for.

Admission officers can tell if the student did well in the course by looking at the transcript, but the teacher letter shines a spotlight on the student that goes beyond the letter grade.

We recommend including three main parts in the recommendation letter:

1. Student’s Experience with the Curriculum
Provide a brief description of the class(es) the student took from you. The key here is to be brief.

2. Academic Characteristics
This section should be dedicated to academic details, observations, and examples of the student’s performance in the class, linking course content to a student’s future potential.

3. Personal Qualities/Engagement in the Classroom
This section is dedicated to the student’s personal qualities or traits that were apparent in the classroom. Whenever possible, use stories or anecdotes to illustrate characteristics, qualities, or traits you saw in him or her.

The best way to learn is through examples, so let’s look at some sample texts here from U.S.-style recommendation letters:

Excerpt 1: This is an example of a strong academic student.

During Hana’s time at Sakura High School, she has taken an extremely demanding assortment of high school courses, including 10 Advanced Level courses. She has been extremely successful in each class, which is one of the reasons she is ranked within the top 10% of her graduating cohort. By the time Hana graduates, she will have also completed 2 dual-enrollment courses for college credit.

Excerpt 2: This is an example of a student whose achievement goes beyond the available activities at his high school.

As you can see from his transcript, Taro is an extraordinary student, but he is also one of the most involved students I’ve met at Sakura High School. His transcript and application might not reflect this particularly well when not seen in context. To be completely frank, Sakura High School does not offer many extra-curricular activities or clubs. The average student has two activities and generally one or both are sports. Taro is involved in five activities and has remained very involved for all three years of high school, while also maintaining a job to save for college. I firmly believe he is limited by this high school. Knowing his incredible drive to achieve despite limitations, I know he is bound to exceed the standards of wherever he attends. 

Your student has asked you to write a recommendation to help create a rounded portrait of him or her, to help the university admission staff see beyond the dry test scores and letter grades. A good recommendation letter will help your student shine!

DO:

  • Help the admission officer get excited about the student
  • Use concrete examples
  • Get right to the point – longer is not always better; a one-page letter is more than enough to convey the excitement of the teacher’s support for the student
  • Include how long you have known the student and in what context (academic, extracurricular, personal)

DON’T:

  • Write a long introduction explaining the history of the school and the details of the course without focusing on the individual student
  • Use a form letter
  • Use fluffy language to fill space
  • Summarize the student’s resume

Yuki Kondo-ShahTo commemorate International Education Week (November 18-22), Consulate Fukuoka Public Affairs Officer Yuki-Kondo Shah has written a five-part series for students and their teachers about how to prepare college applications. In it, she is sharing her observations and expertise from her previous career in admissions as an interviewer at Dartmouth College and an application reader at Stanford University and Harvard University.

Read the other articles in the series:

Click here for more information on studying in the U.S. and EducationUSA programs throughout Japan.