7 Tips for Writing a Genuine and Powerful College Recommendation Letter

Your words can make a big difference.

Tips for Writing a College Recommendation Letter

College admissions season is upon us. With the ever-increasing competition among college applicants, writing an effective and sincere college recommendation letter is one way a teacher can help a student (or students) stand out among the competition. Each year, I write recommendations for a dozen students or so, often to the most prestigious universities in the nation. Here are a few things I have learned along the way:

1. Write only what you know.

To begin, realize you must write your best truth about the student who has asked you for a recommendation. It is acceptable to ask a student for a list of extra-curricular activities; however, if you have to ask, you may want to consider if you are the right person to write that student’s recommendation.

When I feel that I cannot be flattering, either because I do not know the student well enough or I do not feel comfortable recommending him/her for some other reason, I politely decline the request. I usually tell these students to ask a teacher who knows them better.


2. Use the appropriate salutation.

“To Whom It May Concern:” and “Dear Admissions Representative:” are both acceptable. Note the colon instead of comma. Your letter is a business letter and requires a business letter format. When mailing a letter, make sure to leave room for and use school letterhead.


3. Begin with an anecdote.

Admissions representatives want to know how a particular student will fit in on their campus. A story illustrating who the student is and how others perceive him or her, especially one that is poignant or amusing, opens the letter memorably for someone tasked with screening hundreds (or thousands) of applicants’ recommendation letters.

Keep this anecdote within a single introductory paragraph. Make sure to use the student’s full name for the first reference and then just the first name after that. My favorite strategy is ending this paragraph with a single sentence directly stating the characteristics I intended for the anecdote to demonstrate.


4. Write more about character, less about achievements.

In the body of the letter, focus on who the student is rather than what that student has done. Between test scores, transcripts, and the dozens of questions on the application, admissions representatives have plenty of information about applicants’ academic and extra-curricular successes.

What reps want to know is how the student attained those achievements in context of obstacles overcome and challenges undertaken. I usually write two short paragraphs for the body. Sometimes the first relates character to academics and the next relates character to extra-curricular activities; other times, I use the student’s characteristics as the focal points.


5. Conclude with a direct recommendation.

Conclude with a sincere statement of recommendation for the student to the college of their choice. When sending the recommendation to a single college, use the college’s name and/or mascot in your recommendation.

For a recommendation will be stored for use with multiple colleges, such as is the case in Common App, do not include any one school’s identifying characteristics. I return to using the student’s full name in my final reference to him/her in the letter.


6. Use an appropriate closing.

My last statement encourages the college to contact me with any further questions. I close with “Best Regards,” currently my favorite valediction (the word or words that appear just before the signature); it is professional and simple. I also include my title and school after my typed name.


7. Keep it under a page and proofread.

The sweet spot for admissions letter length is between two-thirds and one full, single-spaced 12 pt. Times New Roman (for printed letters) or 11 pt. Arial font (for electronically submitted). If your letter is too short, you risk appearing less than impressed with the applicant; if it is too long, you risk seeming insincere or becoming boring.

Lastly, remember that you are writing a recommendation to an academic institution. Your reputation and your credibility as an educator rests within your letter. While proofreading, check for active voice, proper grammar, and a formal, yet warm tone. If you are unsure of the content or conventions you use in your letter, ask another teacher who knows the student to read your letter and provide additional insight.

Good luck to you and your students this college admissions season. May they get into their reach college and you get to preen with pride as they leave your academic nest.

Do you have any college recommendation letter tips to add? Please share in the comments.


Posted by Tiffany Post

I teach upper level high school and freshman college English. I have three sons: a high school drum major, an elementary Angry Birds fan, and a preschool Star Wars lover. I love to read when I have the chance, am always trying to get fit, and love cookies.

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