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Tips for Writing Student Recommendation Letters

writing a recommendation

It’s the start of another fall semester, and many of your junior and senior students will be applying for college, music schools or camps, or scholarship awards.  For many of their applications, students may ask you for a letter of recommendation.  Here are some tips on what materials you need before writing your letter, how to organize its content, and other logistical tips.

Student Background:

Before writing, ask the student for their current resumé and a stamped addressed envelope for each organization.  Please double check to whom the letter should be addressed, for example the dean of the college of music, or director of a music camp.  Your letter should be directed to the individual who will read it, so accuracy is a must.

Introductory Paragraph:

After reading your student’s resume thoroughly, begin the letter introducing yourself, and your relationship to the student.  For example:

“It is my pleasure to write a letter of recommendation for Jane Doe, a sophomore at USA University.  I have been her voice teacher for the past two years, and can speak with confidence about her abilities and qualifications for your program.”

Voice Proficiency and Musicianship:

In this section of the letter, I discuss the type (Fach) and quality of the voice, strong musical abilities, vocal strengths and weaknesses, and performance ability.  If the student is gifted in sight-reading, language learning and pronunciation, dramatic acting, or has a flair for a particular genre, I highlight that in this section.  For example:

“Willow is a very intelligent, personable young woman who is gifted a clear yet full lyric soprano voice.  Her learning skills and dedication are excellent, and she has progressed from a beginning singer to a mature vocalist in the past four years.  Willow is a joy to teach, and absorbs what I teach her very quickly.  She has a great ear for languages, and has excelled in Italian, German and French art song and shorter arias.  She has a passion for music of the Bel Canto period, and has infussed much dramatic passion as well as vocal beauty into the music of Rossini and Bellini.  Her innate sense of musicianship and phrasing in her singing is well beyond her eighteen years, and I believe will only grow and mature as she continues her studies in college.”

Tailor this section of your letter to the type of student you are writing about, and their particular goals for this application.  If the student is a non-music major auditioning for music scholarship, dwell on their musicianship strengths and what their voice is capable of (range, flexibility, size, projection).  If the student possesses many weaknesses, be gracious.  Realize many high school students (especially vocalists) will not come into their voice until college or later.  Point out their potential, emphasizing their strengths in their vocal technique and musicianship, and addressing some of the major milestones that will be addressed in future study.

Musical Honors and Accomplishments:

This section highlights the student’s school and school-related music achievements, as well as outside competition awards and community involvement.  Involvement in school or community musicals, district, regional and state choruses are significant achievements that should definitely be included in this section.  Recently I wrote:

“Elizabeth has performed with Young Actor’s Theater of Tallahassee for the past six years.  She performed the female lead of Cinderella in Sondheim’s Into the Woods with Young Actor’s Theater, as well as Belle in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast with Leon High School this summer.  Elizabeth has been selected as a soprano II for Florida’s ACDA Honor Choir for the past three years, and has also been selected as a ticket finalist for Florida’s All-State Choir the past two years.  She recently received a superior ranking at Leon County’s Solo and Ensemble festival this fall, and placed second in the state NATS competition (high school division) this winter.”

Related Information:

The next section should attest to the student’s involvement in church, community activities, and part-time work.  Other school honors such as GPA, class rank, club involvement, and academic awards should also be included.  Be sure to accurately refer to the student’s resume.

In closing, I may say, “Claire is a very goal-oriented young woman, and I believe that as she continues to gain confidence in herself and her voice, she will be very successful in your music department.  I give her a high recommendation.”

Do’s and Don’ts:

  • Do sign the letter!
  • Do sign and seal the envelope!  A blind recommendation carries more weight, and is much more professional in the world of academia.
  • Do save a copy of the letter for each one of your students.  You may have written a bulk of your letters this fall, but come spring there may be some “emergency” applications sent out so be prepared.
  • Do be honest, but also be gracious.  If there is an issue with the student’s current ability, address it so as not to be misleading, but aknowlege the potential for growth.
  • Don’t write a tome.  One page is enough.  Make impact with your words by expressing your thoughts and feelings clearly and concisely.
  • Don’t write a general letter that could apply to any one of your students.  Make the letter personal.  It may take more time, but in the long run it is a positive reflection of your student, your student, and you yourself as a teacher.

Nebraska native Sarah Luebke completed her MM in vocal performance at the University of Kentucky, and her BM in vocal performance at St. Olaf College. Recently she has been seen performing the female lead, Jane McDowell, in “The Stephen Foster Story” and the ensemble of “Big River” with Stephen Foster Productions. Other performances include the soprano soloist of Bach’s St. John Passion, La Fee in Massenet’s “Cendrillon” at the Intermezzo Opera Festival, Najade in “Ariadne auf Naxos” at the Brevard Music Festival, Monica in “The Medium”, Rose Maybud in “Ruddigore”, and Fiordiligi in “Cosi fan tutte”. She currently resides with her husband in Florida, teaching a studio of 40 students and auditioning and performing locally.

Sarah Luebke Aug 27, 2008 Student Engagement

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