Letter-writing guidelines

Writing prompts

1st letter: Writing for the first time to an unknown pen pal can be intimidating. But don’t worry! You will know each other soon; you just have to get the conversation started. Here are some suggested topics to get your creative juices flowing.

  • Introduce yourself: Where does your family live and how many siblings do you have (if any)? Do you have any pets? Describe your hobbies and give a unique fact about yourself.
  • Current profession: If you are in college, describe your major and interesting facts about your college. If you have begun your career, describe what you do.
  • Search for a common interest: Think about what you loved to do in middle school or what your younger siblings/children/cousins love. Share that with your pre-scientist!
  • Ask questions: What are you intrigued to know about them? They all have some hilarious stories to share.
  • Slice of life: Send something interesting from the city where you live. Examples include: a newspaper clipping, a picture of a favorite spot in town, a sticker from your college, a business card, a flyer of a main attraction, etc. Be as creative as you want.

2nd letter and beyond: You may have received a letter back from your pen pal and have lots of questions to answer. If you did not receive a letter, or if you are still looking for ideas on what to include, please see the prompts below:


  • Answer any questions your pre-scientist asked
  • Connect with them on any shared interests
  • MotivateExplain what success means to you. How do you know when you are successful at your job? When did you realize that hard work leads to success, and what people or challenges lead you to that conclusion? What strategies do you use when something is difficult?
  • Ask questions about their science class
    • What are you learning about now in science class?
    • Have you done any experiments?
    • What was you favorite thing you did in science since you have been in middle school?
    • If you could do experiments at home, what would you want to study/research?
  • Take them backDescribe your middle school experience. What did you do, like, or think about back in the day? Ask questions to see if things are similar or different from your middle school experience. Do you have a funny picture you could share?
  • Science Stories
    • Changing your mind- Can you tell a story when new information/data caused you to change you thinking?
    • Perseverance- Can you tell a story about a time when you had to stick with something in order to succeed?
    • Overcoming adversity- Were there obstacles (such as poverty, racism, and sexism, etc.) that you had to overcome? What strategies did you use to help you?
    • Creativity- Can you tell a story about when you got to use your creativity in your work?
    • Collaboration- How important are your colleagues? In what ways to you share information with other scientists?
    • Day in the Life- What does a typical day look like for you? 
      • Some classes will be investigating their scientist’s job in the computer lab. Write a clear, student-friendly description of your job. You could include requirements to get there, a fun project you’ve worked on, what your daily schedule looks like, etc.
    • Failure- As a school we have been working to help students reframe failure- to see it as part of the learning process. Is there any story you could tell about a “failed” experiment, where instead of the failure being the endpoint, it was part of the journey that (eventually) produced success?
  • Science Practices- In the new science standards (NGSS) they want students to get to do the things scientists do. Do you really engage in any of these skills? Can you tell a story that focuses on one (or more) of these practices?
    • asking questions
    • arguing from evidence
    • developing and using models
    • using math and computational thinking
    • analyzing data
    • planning and carrying out investigations
    • obtaining, evaluating and communicating information
    • constructing explanations
  • College
    • Was college like you expected?
    • What was the best part of your undergrad experience?
    • What was the biggest challenge you faced in college?

Sample letters

If you are struggling with how to word your letter so it makes sense to your pen pal, please check out these outstanding example letters. (These letters were typed, but we encourage you to hand-write your letters if possible.)

Sample Letter 1: This is a fantastic introductory letter. It does use science words (which is important for vocabulary-building), but it also provides a kid-friendly explanation for those words. It includes pictures about different aspects of this scientist’s life, and makes it a point to talk about things that a middle schooler may be interested in. The scientist asks relevant questions and sounds genuinely interested in learning about her pen pal. This letter was written to a seventh grader. It may take a fifth grader a long time to read through a letter this long. If you are writing to a younger pre-scientist, we suggest you keep the letter to two pages or less.

Sample Letter 2: This letter was written as the second or third letter to a pen pal. It is excellent because it addresses a topic (success) in a way that is encouraging, relevant and kid-friendly. It asks specific questions and provides advice for exploring in the future. This letter was written to a seventh grader, and includes a few high-level vocabulary words. If your pen pal is younger than seventh grade, try to use words they are likely to understand.