Madelyn Goodnight © The Balance
When a student applies for college, he or she will need at least one or two letters of recommendation from a high school teacher, or occasionally an employer. College admissions offices are looking for particular things in a student’s letters of recommendation.
Read below for advice on how to write a persuasive letter of recommendation for a student, plus review sample recommendation letters for college.
Advice for Writing a College Reference Letter
Think carefully about saying yes. Make sure you only agree to write the letter if you can write a positive recommendation. If you don’t think you can, tell the person you are not comfortable writing the recommendation. Here’s information on how to turn down a recommendation request.
If you feel you cannot write the letter, you might also consider pointing the student towards a teacher or administrator who might be a better fit.
Focus on the particular school. Ask the student for information on the school where he or she is applying. Try to focus on the student’s skills that relate to their ability to succeed at that school. Even if it is a more general letter, ask the person about the types of schools they’re hoping to attend. The letter you write for a student attending community college will be different than one you’d do for someone who plans to go to a state or private university.
Collect information. Ask the student for a copy of his or her resume, so that you can speak to the person’s experience. You might also consider meeting with them in-person, to get a better sense of their interests.
Mention how you know the student. At the beginning of the recommendation letter, explain how you know the student and state how long you’ve known them. If you’re a teacher, state how many courses he or she has taken with you. If you are an employer, describe the student’s role and their performance with your organization.
Include specific examples. In the letter, provide specific examples of ways in which the person has demonstrated various skills and qualities. Try to think of examples from when he or she was in your class or your company.
Remain positive. State that you think this student is a strong candidate for the school. You might say something like you “recommend this individual without reservation.” Emphasize this, especially at the beginning and end of the letter. After all, you want to help the student stand out.
Avoid clichés. There are many common clichés on student recommendation letters, including vague phrases like “hard worker” and “diligent student.” Make sure to avoid these clichés, and back up any statement with specific evidence.
Share your contact information. Provide a way for the school to contact you if they have further questions. Include your email address, telephone number, or both at the end of the letter.
Follow the submission guidelines. Ask the student how to submit the letter. Make sure you follow any requirements, especially about where to send it and when, as well as the format (for example, PDF, physical letter, etc.). Double-check the submission deadline so that there will be no question of not having your letter arrive on time.
College Recommendation Letter From a Teacher
You can use this recommendation letter sample as a model. Download the template (compatible with Google Docs and Word Online), or read the text version below.
College Recommendation Letter From a Teacher (Text Version)
Dear XYZ College Admissions Committee,
I have known Beth Crawley for the past two years, having served as both her English teacher and her supervisor on the ABC High School newspaper. I believe Beth would be an excellent addition to XYZ College.
While a student at ABC High School, Beth has always challenged herself academically. She is an active participant in class discussions and grasps material quickly. She has superb written and verbal skills that are a pleasure for any teacher to encounter. Beth even tutors incoming high school freshmen who are struggling with their English courses.
Beth also excels in extracurricular activities. She has served as the features editor of our high school paper for the past two years and has written a number of insightful, thought-provoking articles. Her ability to delegate work to her assistant editors also reflects her organizational skills and strong leadership abilities.
Beth would bring so much to your school, both inside and outside of the classroom. If you have any questions regarding Beth’s qualifications, please feel free to contact me at (555) 555-5555 or [email protected]
English Teacher and Department Chair
ABC High School
College Recommendation Letter From an Employer
Dear XYZ College Admissions Committee,
I highly recommend Peter Ballis as a candidate for XYZ College. I have served as Peter’s supervisor in his capacity as a camp counselor at ABC Summer Camp for the past four years.
From serving as a counselor-in-training in eighth grade to being promoted to head counselor last year, I have watched Peter develop into a confident and capable leader.
Peter is extremely responsible; not only is he accountable for a group of fifteen children every summer, but, as head counselor, he also supervises the counselors-in-training and assists them with any issues they may have. On days when I am not on site, Peter is the counselor I know I can rely on to make sure the other counselors’ days run smoothly. He is a natural leader who can always be counted on.
I am extremely impressed by Peter’s organizational skills. Not only does he come up with detailed weekly schedules for his campers, but he also makes sure that his group arrives on time to every activity.
How to Get the Best Letters for Your Application
- Ph.D., English, University of Pennsylvania
- M.A., English, University of Pennsylvania
- B.S., Materials Science & Engineering and Literature, MIT
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Most colleges with holistic admissions, including a significant percentage of the the schools that use the Common Application, will want at least one letter of recommendation as part of your application. The letters provide an outside perspective on your abilities, personality, talents, and preparedness for college.
Key Takeaways: Letters of Recommendation
- Ask a teacher who knows you well, not a distant celebrity.
- Give your recommender plenty of time and information.
- Ask politely, and follow up with a thank you note.
While letters of recommendation are rarely the most important part of a college application (your academic record is), they can make a difference, especially when the recommender knows you well. The guidelines below will help you know who and how to ask for letters.
Ask the Right People to Recommend You
Many students make the mistake of getting letters from distant acquaintances who have powerful or influential positions. The strategy often backfires. Your aunt’s neighbor’s stepfather may know Bill Gates, but Bill Gates doesn’t know you well enough to write a meaningful letter. This type of celebrity letter will make your application seem superficial.
The best recommenders are those teachers, coaches, and mentors you have worked with closely. Choose someone who can speak in concrete terms about the passion and energy that you bring to your work. If you do choose to include a celebrity letter, make sure it is a supplemental letter of recommendation, not a primary one. If a college asks for just a single letter, you will usually want to ask a teacher who can speak about your academic potential and personal qualities.
Many colleges ask you to submit one recommendation from a counselor, one or two from a teacher, and zero to two from an “other recommender,” such as a coach or employer. First, you should read any information the school provides about what it wants from recommenders—a school like MIT, for example, requires that one recommendation come from a math or science teacher and one from a teacher in the humanities.
For teachers and other recommenders, choose people with whom you have strong professional and personal relationships: this means both that you have excelled in their subject area and that you get along well. (In the “other recommenders” category, the Common App is now accepting recommendations from family members and peers. I discourage using these options unless a school specifically asks for a family or peer recommendation—these recommenders are much more likely to seem biased than a recommendation from an adult at your extracurricular activity, community service, workplace, or place of worship.) Check out the sample Teacher Evaluation form here to see what questions your recommenders will answer about you.
Look for recommenders who can speak to how you cope with adversity or failure, how you work in a team, how you compare favorably to other students in your classes, or how you pursue intellectual and extracurricular challenges beyond what is required of you. If you are worried about a problem area on your application, you might choose a recommender who can address that issue in an honest but positive light. Finally, aim for balance—if your teacher recommendation is from a music teacher, you might choose an “other recommender” who leads your science club or coaches your volleyball team, rather than your orchestra conductor.
If you go to a large school, your recommenders will likely be writing letters for many students, and even if you’re at a smaller school, recommendations will not be the only thing on your teachers’ minds. Therefore, it is up to you to remind your recommenders of your accomplishments and interests in an organized manner! Write a brief cover letter to each recommender, including the following information: which schools you are applying to; what major(s) you might pursue; any information about you you’re hoping they can highlight in their letter; and a reminder of how they should submit their letters (through the Common App or any other application programs your prospective colleges use). And of course you want to set deadlines—ask for your letters to be submitted at least a week before the application is actually due, to give you some wiggle room if your recommenders are behind schedule.
Attach a resume to jog your recommenders’ memories about your grades, activities, and achievements. Even if your high school asks all students to fill out a “brag sheet” or something similar to help recommenders, it is a good idea to follow up with more personalized information. Additionally, if you are an international applicant and English is not your recommenders’ first language, let them know they can write their recommendation in any language, and you can have it translated. And be sure to end the information packet with a quick thank you!
Although the Common App lets you invite recommenders electronically, I strongly recommend you speak to each of your potential recommenders in person before you invite them online. You want your recommenders to have a clear memory of you when they’re writing, and that is best achieved by stopping by their classrooms before or after school or during their office hours with your packet of information already prepared. Most importantly, do this well in advance of your deadlines—at least a month before the application is due, and preferably within the first week or two of the school year.
You might say something like, “Hi, Ms. Pierce. I’m applying for colleges this year, and I was hoping you might write me a recommendation letter because [ I really loved your class , or you coached my project at the science fair , or you taught one of my most challenging classes , etc.]. Do you feel like you could write me a strong letter of recommendation?”. If your recommender says yes, you can give them the packet of information and stay to answer any questions they have.
Then comes the tricky part—making sure your recommenders submit their recommendations on time. Although you might feel like a pest, most recommenders will appreciate a polite, brief reminder of submission deadlines when they are two weeks and then one week away. If you are only a day or two out from the deadline, this is a good time to enlist your college counselor to help you. Ask your counselor if she can speak with the teacher, or if she can call the admissions offices at the schools where you are applying to let them know one of your recommendations might be a bit late.
If a recommender says no, you should take that response seriously and move on to asking a different person. Try not to take it personally—many teachers are overworked, and if they are honest enough to tell you they aren’t able to write a strong recommendation for you, that is definitely better than getting an unenthusiastic or hastily-written letter.
Asking for recommendations is another one of those skills that you might practice for the first time when you apply to colleges but that you will use throughout your adult life, when you need references for graduate school, jobs, and sometimes even apartment rentals. The vast majority of teachers and other school employees want students to go to their dream colleges—they will be happy to write for you. And, of course, once the process is done, be sure to send thank you notes letting your recommenders know how much you appreciate their letters and how excited you are for college.
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