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Writing a Letter of Recommendation

It’s that time of year again! Maybe you’re a pro at writing a letter of recommendation for your students and need some inspiration or this is your first time and you aren’t sure where to start. No matter your experience, having a strong letter of recommendation is a critical part of your students’ college application and helps admissions committees determine whether or not to admit them. So how do you go about writing a letter of recommendation that portrays your student in the best possible light? Keep reading to learn more.

What Does a Letter of Recommendation Do?

A letter of recommendation helps college admissions committees see how your student is different. Most colleges receive thousands of applications from qualified students and the letter you write will help separate your student from the crowd.

When admissions officers sit down to read letters of recommendation for a student, they’re looking for your insight into the student’s academic and personality traits. They’re well aware that a transcript, personal essays, and a collection of extracurricular activities only tell one side of the story. And you’re in the perfect position to enlighten the admissions committee about whom they’re considering accepting into their school.

Admissions officers also rely on your insight to determine what your student will contribute to the college community. Because colleges look for students who will continue to succeed and make positive additions to the campus, they look to your experience to help them make the right choice. Letters of recommendation allow you to advocate for your student and it’s impressive for colleges to see teachers not only champion their students, but do it well.

If you weren’t feeling the pressure before, I’m sure you are now. So when you’re writing a letter of recommendation, how do you make sure it’s as strong and effective as possible?

How to Write an Effective and Strong Letter of Recommendation

Now that we’ve clarified the intention of a recommendation letter, we can focus on how to craft the best letter possible. I’ve included some of the best tips and suggestions I’ve learned over the years from admissions officers and from writing a few letters of my own. Here are my suggestions for how to write a recommendation letter your students will thank you for in the years to come.

Personalize It

One of the most important things to remember when you’re writing a letter of recommendation is to customize each letter to the student and school you’re writing it for. Although letters of recommendation are equally important for community colleges as they are for Harvard or MIT, the content and focus would be different, because each school values different things. And if you write a letter for Amanda that’s the exact same letter for Timothy, you’re not advocating strongly for either student.

Make sure your letter of recommendation helps whoever is reading it get to know your student better. The admissions committee has already read your student’s transcripts and resume; they need something more from your letter. But at the same time, you don’t have to talk about every single accomplishment your student has achieved.

Focus on What Matters

It’s most helpful to use their involvement or a story about them you’ve experienced firsthand and use it to tell something impactful about the student you’re advocating for. MIT gives a list of questions to help guide you through writing a strong letter of recommendation for a student. Chances are if it works for MIT, it will work for the other schools you have to write letters for.

Here are the questions MIT suggests you answer in your letter:

  •    What is the context of your relationship with the applicant? If you do not know the applicant well and are only able to write a brief summary, please acknowledge this.
  •    Has the student demonstrated a willingness to take intellectual risks and go beyond the normal classroom experience?
  •    Does the applicant have any unusual competence, talent or leadership abilities?
  •    What motivates this person? What excites him/her?
  •    How does the applicant interact with teachers? With peers? Describe his/her personality and social skills.
  •    What will you remember most about this person?
  •    If you have knowledge of MIT, what leads you to believe MIT is a good match for this person? How might he/she fit into the MIT community and grow from the MIT experience?
  •    Has the applicant ever experienced disappointment or failure? If so, how did he/she react?
  •    Are there any unusual family or community circumstances of which we should be aware?

MIT also provides some sample letters and feedback for you to look over while you’re writing a letter of recommendation. I really recommend looking at sample letters, because seeing what does and doesn’t work will help when you’re writing a letter of recommendation. It's also worth mentioning that, because admissions committees will read thousands of recommendation letters, it’s critical that they be well-written with strong opening and closing paragraphs.

Perfect It

It’s completely okay, even encouraged, to write a few drafts of the recommendation letters you’ll be submitting. Have another set of eyes look it over to make sure it’s coherent and thoughtful. And be sure to double check for spelling and grammar issues. Remember that the thought and care you put into writing a letter of recommendation says just as much about your students as much as it does you.

Writing a letter of recommendation can be confusing and overwhelming, but hopefully the advice you’ve found here will make the task much easier. Just keep in mind your role as the student’s advocate, personalize your letter, include the important stuff, and perfect it.

How do you feel about writing letters of recommendation? Do you have any additional tips or tricks to share with us? Leave us in the comments below.