First things first, I must applaud those of you who work in the pursuit of shaping the minds of young, angsty teenagers. This truly is a noble profession, one in which there is little recognition or commendation.
At the same time, high school seniors and juniors face the stress of growing up and applying to college under the overwhelming blanket of insecurity and vulnerability. Many of them need letters of recommendation as part of their college applications, and most often, that responsibility falls on you. While it may seem like yet another nuisance, yet another thing to cross off your lesson plans and to-do lists, you should absolutely take this as the "hey, thanks," that you deserve. When students ask you to be a part of this process, to help complete strangers see their good qualities, they have entrusted you to vouch for their character.
Flattery aside, writing letters of recommendation comes with its own host of pressures and expectations. The following are several guidelines to help yourself and your students.
Begin your letter with an introduction of yourself, your position, and how you know the student. If you work in the field your student is interested in, or is hoping to study in the future, give some examples of relevant coursework you have done together.
Be honest. This cannot be stressed enough. Be honest with yourself, be honest with your students, and be honest in the letters you write. If a student asks you for a letter of recommendation but you don't feel comfortable vouching for them, politely decline and suggest an alternative teacher or authority figure. For the most part, if students ask you to write their recommendation letter, it means they believe that you will sing their praises. If you are incapable of doing so, speak up. No one wants to insincerely give or receive compliments, so don't let yourself fall into that trap.
Another very important thing to remember when writing a recommendation letter is to allow your own personality to shine throughout. Prospective employers and admissions personnel can spot a generic layout with filler words from a mile away. Be professional, of course, but use your own voice and your own experiences with your student when writing your letter. These are the ones that actually prove that your student is more than just another faceless inhuman college applicant.
On that note, do make sure to write about your student's personality. They have already submitted their transcripts, resumes and college applications, all of which describe their accomplishments and grade point averages. Most likely, letters of recommendation are the only shot a student has at showing their personality. If they were always the first person to raise their hand, write that down. If they were usually the first person to include others in group activities, write that down. If they asked for help when they needed it, write that down. If they made others laugh during stressful class projects, write that down.
One prompt that often comes up throughout the college application process is to describe a time in which the student overcame a problem. This can serve as a starting point for educators. If you saw your student grow or develop in a specific way, or if you watched them handle a difficult situation with integrity and respect, write that down. Admissions professionals appreciate stories of personal growth through wiser eyes than those of seventeen-year-olds.
A final note: Don't stress too much. Recommendation letters are important, to be sure, but they are merely one component of a student's college application. Your word will not make or break their admissions decision, but merely aid in painting an accurate picture of someone you have come to know. Be honest, be yourself, be personal and professional, and you'll have a recommendation letter your student will appreciate.