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How to Write a Powerful College Recommendation Letter

Jordan Catapano


Every student deserves the best chance possible. This is especially true when it comes to the highly competitive arena of college admissions. Even those students who got on our nerves or who don’t seem to have earned our help still deserve our backing. And one of the biggest opportunities for teachers to show how much they support their students is by writing college recommendation letters.

Writing college recommendation letters can often seem like a chore since we don’t get paid extra for it and it cuts into our extremely precious time. We often might not even feel like we have much to say about a student, or we feel at a loss for how to put our student’s best foot forward with this letter.

So, here’s a crash course on what you should do when writing college recommendation letters for any student who may ask for your help.

First, ask a few questions about where the student is applying and what fields they are interested in studying. This helps give you the right “angle” on your recommendation. If, for example, they are applying to a college that is interested in leadership skills, you can shape your letter to highlight some of the leadership aspects of your student.

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Next, compose a draft of what you want your letter to say. Here’s a brief example of a commonly used outline many teachers use to write effective recommendations:

1.     Paragraph of Introduction. A few sentences to introduce yourself and the student. Here you can state the first impression this student gave you, your own background, or the characteristics about the student that most stick out to you.

2.     Paragraph of Details. This is a body paragraph designed to explain how you know the student and what is most important about this student for the college to know. It is extremely important that you include specific examples that help to back up the characteristics you’re describing. Share a story, a memory, or a unique detail that makes the student more tangible. Often I use this paragraph to discuss highlights of students’ academic performance.

3.     Paragraph of Elaboration. This is another body paragraph, but it differs from the previous in that it points out a different attribute, usually something related to the student’s character. Here, like above, it is important to use specific stories and illustrations, but they might focus on how nice, respectful, quiet, thoughtful, or exemplary their behaviors were. This paragraph helps to round out the total description of the student.

4.     Paragraph of Recommendation. This is a conclusion paragraph, and you can directly state here that you recommend this student and the reasons why.

After you draft the letter, carefully read through it and edit it for grammar and content. You don’t want to speak on behalf of a student with glaring grammatical errors!

Finally, print out a copy and sign it with blue or black ink. This adds a personal touch to it. Include your contact information as well, if you don’t mind the possibility of a college admissions officer contacting you (they rarely ever will, but it’s a good show of support for the student).

If you follow the above outline, you can produce a meaningful recommendation that clearly illustrates why this student is special. Remember that it might be the details and enthusiasm in your recommendation that make the student stand out in the eyes of a college, so do your best to make it count. Plus, the pride that a student feels when they read the kind things you say about them will undoubtedly make a long lasting, positive impression.

Avoid making the letter too short. If you write only a few sentences about a student, that doesn’t say much about your enthusiasm for them, does it? A college should see your letter dripping with “I 100% believe in this student and here’s why” information.

When should you tell a student “No”?

It’s pretty rare when I say no to a student’s request for a recommendation. I usually believe that if a student wants me to give a recommendation, then I should do my best to help them. I can find at least one nice thing to say about any student. However, sometimes I’m just not the person a college will take seriously.

In some cases, a student may be applying to a science program at a college – as an English teacher I can’t speak about a student’s scientific merits. Unless the student wants me to focus on character or academic habits, the college might not take my recommendation as seriously as a science teacher’s.

The only other instance where I’ve told students no is when I just haven’t known them for very long. On one occasion, a senior asked me to write her a letter of recommendation after I had known her for only two weeks. Again, I thought that the college probably wouldn’t take my recommendation seriously since I hadn’t known her long enough to form a valid opinion.

So remember that following a few easy outline steps can go a long way in composing an effective letter of recommendation that highlights the best attributes a student has to offer. Just taking the time to write one letter for a student might make an enormous difference on their future. 

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