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The Recommendation Letter That Won a Quarter Million Dollars in College Scholarships

Photo Credit:  PhotoPin (license)
Photo Credit: PhotoPin License

Recommendation letters are an essential part of the college and scholarship application process. Choosing the right teachers to write you recommendation letters is crucial. You must select a teacher who you have developed a good relationship with. The teacher should know you well so that he (or she) can write about specific examples of his (or her) interactions with you. You should also select a teacher who can write well. Having a great relationship with a teacher who can’t write well or who uses the same cookie-cutter template for every student will not help you.

When I was in high school, I was lucky enough to establish a great rapport with my English teacher, Mrs. McCoy. She wrote me an excellent recommendation letter that helped me get into great universities and win a quarter million dollars in scholarships. Below is an exact copy of her recommendation letter.

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To Whom It May Concern:

I have known Shaan Patel since he joined National Honor Society in his sophomore year (I was the NHS advisor until this year), and he is also a student this year in my English Language and Composition AP class. Nothing could give me more pleasure than writing a recommendation for this extraordinary young man. I cannot think of a student who is more deserving of a scholarship than Shaan.

I have been teaching for almost 13 years, both at the University of Nevada Las Vegas and at the secondary level in high school, and I can honestly say that I have never come across a student with Shaan’s broad-based abilities. It is usual to find a student with particular talents in math or English, but it is quite unusual to find one who is equally at home with both the hard sciences and the world of liberal arts. He is also a person of strong ethics, and I have never known him to thoughtlessly violate his own standards of behavior, which are exceedingly high. The single time that he thought he might be doing something that could be considered wrong, he came to me and talked it over until he felt he had arrived at the best solution to his dilemma.

I rarely give scores of 100% on essays, but I have already done it twice this year with Shaan. Not only does he have a thorough understanding of English grammar and the construction of an effective argument, but he has the ability to use vivid description and the graceful turn of phrase as well. It is obvious to me that his reading has been both wide and deep since the references that pop up in his essays are so varied. I consider him to be among the top two or three students of my teaching career.

Shaan’s chief intellectual characteristics are honesty and curiosity.

He also is quite open and ready to be persuaded from a previously held opinion if he believes the evidence is sufficiently compelling. A good example is the week my AP class was reading George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” and Russell Baker’s “American Fat” — both having to do with pompous, excessively  Latinized, and jargon-filled writing. At first, Shaan attacked Orwell’s ideas because more elevated language is often useful and desirable when one is looking for precision or aiming one’s remarks at a particular audience. As usual, most of the rest of the class was swept up in Shaan’s rhetorical wake; however, when we were debating the merits of the second essay, Shaan waited until near the end of the discussion and then turned the tables on his classmates by deciding that he had changed his mind about this issue. His argument was so subtle and delicately qualified that it effectively sucked all the air out of the discussion and left the class wondering what had just happened to them.

Shaan will occasionally stay after class to debate a point further with me or bring up something from the previous week he has been mulling over. Ideas are important to him, and he delights in teasing out fine shadings or melding disparate positions in unique ways. I was fascinated a couple weeks ago when he shared some of his ideas about treating patients, using both “Western” science and “Eastern” or alternative methods. He is not a person who believes that the solutions to wellness are simple — because humans themselves are not simple beings. Our discussion ranged over surgical and pharmacological methods as well as social, religious, and philosophical approaches to health. I am convinced that he will not only be a great doctor, but he will surely write about what he does in such a way that medicine will be changed by his practice and ideas. A mind like his will never be content with the status quo. He will continue to pursue knowledge and its useful applications—as well as its philosophical implications—for the rest of his life.

Leadership comes naturally to Shaan. Other students defer to him because of his intellect, but his kindness and perception turns followers into friends. His interests are mainly in the area of helping people, and he usually rises to the top of any group because of the intensity of his interest. When others have given up or lost interest, he will still be working unwilling to quit until the job is done. I personally saw this in Honor Society, when—as busy as he was with other activities—he continued to put in the required number of service hours and more. This year, in my AP English class, he is the same way with assignments and projects. He will drive himself and his group until all the requirements are met to his satisfaction.

I have seen Shaan Patel grow from a rather shy sophomore, who quietly went about the business of earning his hours of service in the National Honor Society, to a confident young man who ran for office and won (he is the current vice president of NHS). I have also observed as he as devoted himself to serving the homeless at Las Vegas soup kitchens, planting trees and shrubs at a new regional park, playing with children at a downtown daycare facility, visiting shut-ins at a nursing home, and volunteering many hours at a local hospital. This year, he has become immersed in his work with a group of young people who are working with the Southern Nevada Water Authority to develop a plan for water conservation in Las Vegas. As he has with his service work with Honor Society, Shaan sticks with his interests, undeterred by the ups and downs of daily life. If he decides that something is worthwhile, he stays with it.

Unlike the stereotypical “brain” who gets a perfect score on the SAT (which he did this year), Shaan is sociable, likable, and respected by his peers and the adults who work with him. I have found him to be a person of remarkable maturity for his years, and I have personally watched him handle difficult personal situations with seriousness and calm.

He was not raised in a “cushioned” middle class suburb; instead, he has lived over the family motel in the urban core of Las Vegas. His perspective has been shaped not only by a strong family and ethnic identity, but by the sometimes raw life he has observed on the streets around him. He has developed an understanding of the world that includes the disadvantaged as well as the affluent. He not only possesses a sharp intellect, but he has developed a compassionate heart and graceful way with people that is utterly sincere. His resume is replete with academic accomplishments, extracurricular activities, and service to his communities; however, it is his thoughtful approach to life and his personal integrity that distinguish him from most of the students of my acquaintance. He is absolutely exceptional.

If I can be of further help to you as you make your decision, please do not hesitate to call me or write to me at the number and address below.

Sincerely,
Cynthia L. McCoy



Shaan Patel

Shaan Patel is the founder of Prep Expert Test Preparation (formerly 2400 Expert), a #1 bestselling SAT prep author, an MD/MBA student at Yale and USC, and winner of an investment deal with billionaire Mark Cuban on ABC's Shark Tank. He raised his own SAT score from average to perfect and teaches students his methods in an online SAT prep class.