This is the time of year that many students are requesting letters of recommendation to colleges, universities, and scholarship boards.
I agree with howesk about the form making it easier to write the letter. My school doesn't have a form, but several years ago I created one for students who requested a letter from me to complete. So often several students need letters at once, and the form helps me remember details I would probably otherwise forget. I usually remember activities the students are involved in, but it is difficult to keep up with career goals and that sort of thing. If the student needs me to fill out a specific reference form provided by the college or scholarship, then a copy has to be attached to the request form. I have found that writing the letters is not such a chore anymore.
I try to make a connection between the accomplishments listed in the student's resume, and the goals and other points they make in their statement, and my own experience of the student. It seems important to establish that the student has what it takes to succeed in their chosen program, and yet these students often don't have any experience, so it pays to creatively explore ways of making the student sound exemplary.
I also try to write with flair, so maybe my words will stand out from the run of the mill letters, and help the student's chances further.
Does your school have a form a student must fill out to ask for a recommendation letter? Where I teach, the students have to get a form from guidance before they ask a teacher for a letter. The form has some of the standard questions- achievements, grades, etc... but it also has some interesting, thought provoking questions like "What is the biggest struggle you have overcome?" Having students answer this type of question before writing their letter can help to make the letter more personal and unique while avoiding sounding like a restatement of their resume, especially for students with whom I don't have a very close personal relationship.
I agree that avoiding re-listing the achievements the student has already provided is a waste of time.
I also agree that for many applications, reference letters are merely a formality and what is said in them is not terribly important.
I used to stress over what to say for average or below average students who asked for letters and it was hard to come up with positive things to say. (Why is it that as an English teacher, every student just assumes I love writing rec-letters?!) I made the decision only to focus on the positive and to let the student read my letter. My thought is, maybe when something positive is pointed out, they'll try to live up to it more often. Even if in high school, the kid isn't worth my recommendation, I have to hope that maybe all he needs is a second chance at something great.
I also try to think of things about the student that maybe I'm the only one who has noticed. Personality or character qualities that (like someone else said) make them seem human and still awesome.
We always tell our writing students that they need to "Show, Not Tell" so I try to follow my own advice. I also wholeheartedly agree that you have to tell a specific story -- there is no possible way it can come across as a "find name -- replace name" type of letter if you do it well.
Just as I recommend that students use their essays to show the committees things which can't be found in all the fill-in-the-blank stuff, I remind myself to do the same on student recommendations. Somehow I need to show things about each student which display what I most appreciate about them as students--without sounding like just another teacher writing a hyperbolic assessment. I agree, though; it all seems like rather a crap shoot to me. But I press on, of course.
Break up the normal format. The people who serve on these screening boards read hundreds of these letters, so avoid introducing the letter with the standard introduction. Start with an anecdote that demonstrates the student's worthiness, and rather than endlessly go on about their extracurricular achievements (which are in the application anyway), include a paragraph on what specific skills will translate to the college level.
With so much emphasis on considering community service in awarding scholarships, anything that the teacher can underscore lends verity to the student's entries of service on the application form. Here, too, is an opportunity to write a narrative example of what the student has done, as mentioned by drmonica above. In concurrence with her remark that using such "anecdotes" make the student real for the committees, I have had students who have been told that such anecdotes were very "informative." Of course, providing details of specific actions that the applicant acts as proof of the applicant's glowing attributes.
I am frequently asked to write letters of recommendation. For high school students, I focus on at least one detailed anecdote, along with a list of adjectives that are appealing. I include several brief details as well that exemplify the adjectives I use to describe the student.
I like to try to portray the student as a "real person" for the admissions or scholarship committee to be able to "see" via my writing.
LIE! No, seriously, my own personal opinion is that what we write doesn't actually have that much impact in the large scheme of things. I have written references that have been terrible because the students never have done any work, have even insulted and threatened teachers, and they still have been accepted. On the other side, I have spent lots of time on references for students who are great and I really believe in them and they are unsuccessful. I guess this has made me a bit cynical about the value of my opinion as a teacher.
One thing that is hard about this is that you never know how your letters are received by the people who are reading them. My only direct experience on the other end is when I was on the admissions committee of my graduate program. What I've been told by people who do undergrad admissions and scholarships basically centers around one thing -- how well you can show a personal knowledge of the student and his/her outstanding characteristics.
I've been told that the most effective letters are ones that can give memorable anecdotes about the students. These are stories that illustrate what you think is outstanding about the student. So you have to come up with some intellectual insight you remember the student making, for example, or some particular story that shows the student's dedication to pursuing their education.
Again, it's hard to know -- I've written letters for students who have gotten big scholarships or admission to prestigious universities, but did my letters actually do any good? Who knows?
In the requests I receive for these letters I reiterate what their application displays regarding their academic abilities. I think the most important part is to build upon that and show them what kind of human being they are and what a good citizen they are. It is important that the reader's of these letters see the contributions these students make outside of the classroom. In this world where college admission is so competitive we need to show these colleges and universities that these students will not only be good students but contribute to their campus climate.
The best way that I found was to write a story about them. A short story full of emotion, conversation, and the way they behave. We have students enclose resumes in their applications so I never redress awards or accomplishments, those were already in the application. What schools want is to know is: what makes this student a stellar student? And to simply redress things that are in the application is completely unnecessary.