What it Takes to Earn a Flinn Scholarship
What the Teacher Recommendation Can Do
We often suggest to prospective applicants that they may want to seek one letter from an English, humanities, or social-science teacher, and the second from a teacher of mathematics or science. Such a division helps us to discern further the students’ intellectual balance; however, it remains a suggestion, not a prescription. We are more concerned with obtaining depth of insight into the candidates’ quality and habits of mind; if two persons from related fields can best provide that information, the students and our reviewers will be better served.
Unlike your students, you are not bound by word limits. Most effective letters occupy one to two single-spaced pages. Below are approaches we encourage you to employ.
Most scholarship and college applications demand that students tell their stories. But there are dimensions to each story that students themselves cannot express; they lack the perspective that your detachment and experience offer. We hope that the recommendations you write will help us better understand your students, perceive their individual excellences, and value the contributions to their classrooms, school, and civic community.
Talk with your Students
In your initial conversation with students who request recommendations from you, you should request a description of the specific scholarship, its criteria, and an indication of the students’ reason for choosing you to write on their behalf. Are they asking primarily because they earned a high grade in your course, or because you recognized that the course material did not come easily for them and they succeeded despite the challenge? Is there a distinctive role they perceive you having played in their school (and future) careers?
Your letters should always establish the nature and duration of your relationship with each student. Next, consider whether you have seen these students in different contexts and/or outside of the classroom: Are there episodes in the students’ lives or specific projects you supervised or saw outcomes of that they hope you will comment on? If so, you should ask them for a sample of work produced for your class (if available). This will let you refer in specific terms to an assignment that helped form your high opinion of the student.
Orient the Reviewer of the Application
Your recommendation helps reviewers understand your students’ environment. Specifically, we want to know what your classroom and courses are like. The raw data of grades and test scores are meaningless unless we know what students did to earn them. Help our readers understand the expectations you bring to your classes and the ways in which you encourage your students to meet them.
To elaborate: Different subjects favor different styles of learning; some require students to work quite independently; for others, teamwork is the norm. Students’ ability to apply what they have learned to real-life situations may be important in one setting; technical proficiency may be important in another. Oral presentations may dominate assessment in one course; projects may dominate in another. Some teachers emphasize argumentative and expository writing grounded in research; others cultivate their students’ creative expression.
Do not use only the claimed difficulty of your course as evidence of the student’s ability or work ethic; you don’t really mean to suggest that your colleagues apply lax standards or that the rest of your own students are slackers. If the course is distinctive in its content and requirements, you should identify those specific features. You can, of course, be specific about the volume and caliber of work: “As a junior, Ruben performed at a high level in my senior-level course” or “Claire has already developed a portfolio/performance repertoire as sophisticated as one usually sees in a student several years more advanced.” Make your reflections and anecdotes specific to each individual student.
Complete the Portrait
You have the advantage of seeing your students almost daily and can write with authority about their habits of mind as demonstrated in your classroom throughout the year. This may include assessments of their intellectual and personal growth as reflected in class discussions (insights offered and leadership assumed), laboratory or field performance, and evidence of written work. How do they approach a question or topic? Do they have a preferred problem-solving strategy? How do they demonstrate academic initiative? What evidence do they give of a love of learning that exceeds the basic requirements of your course? For what do they exhibit a passion, and how do they pursue it? How do they share their enthusiasm for ideas with their peers and with you?
Answers to such questions are often most effectively conveyed by an episode that illustrates your students’ behaviors; these stories often catch the attention of our readers and will help solidify your students’ identity in their memory. Similarly, when you assign particular qualities of character or mind (i.e., “Chris is a creative student…”), support those descriptions with some evidence of your assertion (“…who developed a more effective way of organizing the peer-editing groups in our writing class.”), a brief anecdote or illustrative episode. These are the stories your students cannot (or would never think to) tell about themselves; you can add an important layer of anecdotal information that will make the person on the page one we become eager to meet in person.
Your involvement with your students may extend to roles outside of the classroom: coaching their Academic Decathlon team or sponsoring the newspaper or yearbook that your student edits. Your insights from those relationships should also come into play, but remember always that your principal contribution is in detailing a more complex perspective on the intellectual lives of your students.
Avoid exaggerating claims for the student’s accomplishment or ranking in the roster of students you have taught throughout your career. Committees do notice when a teacher describes multiple students as “The single best I have encountered in 20 years.” Such misguided claims, while rare, essentially negate the value of that person’s letters for all of the students. You do not necessarily have to compare your candidates to each other or rank individual students, especially if you are writing for more than one in a given application cycle. If you have sufficiently distinguished them in your accounts and highlighted their particular individual excellences, reviewers will draw the relevant conclusions.
Toward maximizing the range of insights about your students, we encourage you to meet with the other teacher and the counselor who are joining you in writing recommendations for a particular student. Convening as a recommendation team adds significant value to your time and efforts by allowing all three of you to coordinate your efforts, making sure that each offers different perspectives and different illustrations of the student’s traits. You want the letters to complement, not coincide with, each other; we should learn something distinctive from what each of you has to say.
Declining to Recommend
Do not agree to write a letter if you have serious reservations about a student’s performance or character. In such a case, you have some obligation to inform the student of the nature and depth of your concerns and give the student an opportunity to choose someone whose reflections may be more positive.
You may also say “no” to a request for a recommendation if the student offers inadequate advance notice (two weeks is usually considered acceptable; three, preferable). If short notice is the factor, please be certain that you have explicitly stated your expectation or policy well in advance of when students will begin requesting recommendations, so that they have the information they need to help you help them.
We hope these comments are of help to you and your colleagues. If you would like further assistance or can suggest more effective ways of sharing this (or other) information, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.