Applications

How to Write Recommendation Letters that Stand Out 

You have control over pretty much your entire application but not your recommendation letters. These letters will be written by someone else, and they will be valuable to the admissions office of the college you are applying to. 

Are recommendation letters important? 

Everything you submit for your college application is important, and that includes your letter of recommendation. A recommendation letter helps in presenting your information to another person in another voice. 

In other words, a recommendation letter helps reveal your strengths, weaknesses, goals, and achievements through someone else, such as your teachers, coaches, mentors, among other people. 

Also, it is essential to note that you should not read your recommendation letter before submitting it. Usually, CommonApp will provide you with a waiver, which is optional, requiring you to sign and acknowledge that you didn't read the recommendation letter before submitting it. 

How Many Should You Submit? 

The number of recommendation letters will depend on the college you are applying to. That said, it is crucial that you carefully check the requirements of the college. If your college accepts CommonApp, you need to submit two recommendation letters. 

Who Should Be Your Recommender? 

When you are selecting people for recommendation letters, choose only those who know you well.

The recommendation letters are about you and not about who is giving it. So it is not of great relevance if one of your teachers is renowned or an alumnus of the college you are applying to. If the teacher doesn’t know you well, the recommendation letter will not be solid and convincing. If he simply recognizes you by face and which class you are studying in, the recommendation letter will be non-specific and fail to make an impact.

Therefore, carefully select your recommendation letter writers. Be sure that they know you well – not just by your grades. They should be able to write about your character, abilities, and any such relevant information about you that college admission staff won’t find in your application documents. 

How Can Your Help: Write The First Draft Yourself

You should always provide a draft of a recommendation letter to your recommender. This will do all the heavy lifting for him or her, and, more importantly, you can control the content of the recommendation letter. In all my years, majority of the recommenders are extremely happy in receiving a draft from the students.

This is a one-time opportunity you shouldn't let go. Instead, make the best out of it. The next section will give you all the details on how to write an awesome recommendation letter.

If your recommender does not want a draft, send him or her as much information about yourself that you possibly can. Send your goals, resumes, academic records, achievements, skills, and so on. This will help your recommenders write your letter of recommendation faster and as detailed as possible. 

You should also let them know why you picked them as your preferred teacher to write you a recommendation letter: this will create a personal connection.  

Elements of a Recommendation Letter

Now, there are essential elements that your recommendation letter should have. These elements include: 

  • Descrption of the Recommender and the relationship between the recommender and the student.
  • Overview of the student’s accomplishments, strengths, and how these relate to your experiences with him or her
  • A story about the recommender’s experience with the student, and this should be a story that directly relates to the student 's strengths or accomplishments. 
  • Conclusion that explains why the student is a perfect match for the college

That out of the way, let's cut to the chase – the finer points that really make a recommendation letter stand out. 

  1. Distinct narratives and instances

When your recommender narrates an incident to make a point, it very naturally indicates to the college admissions staff that the letter writer is not spinning a yarn and has real-life instances to vouch for what he is stating.

A general statement will be: Ryan is an intelligent student and is intensely enthusiastic about Biology.

A distinct statement will be: Ryan is an intelligent student and is intensely enthusiastic about Biology. He applies himself completely to his studies and has been a persistent class topper. He even scored a 7 on the IB exam and is head and shoulders above the rest of his class. He is so ardent about biology that he interned as a research assistant last summer.

  1. Strong and emphatic words

When your recommender uses strong language and emphatic words to describe you, the college admissions staff picks up the vehemence in his narrative. Such words imply instantly that you are good and there are no two ways about it. 

A general statement will be: Robbie came up with well-written essays when she was in my IB English program and she frequently helped some of her friends.

A strong statement will be: Robbie’s essays in my IB program that she attended have been a delight. I used to wait to read them – never seen such essays written by a student in my whole career. Even her friends would seek her out for tips and help in improving their essays.

  1. Impassioned backing

There is a recommendation letter and then there is an impassioned recommendation letter. Your recommender should fulfill the task of assuring the college admissions staff that they shouldn’t let go of you and if they do, it will be the college’s loss and not yours. 

Such a spirited backing from your recommender will not be taken lightly and the college admissions staff will sit up and take notice of you.

A general statement will be: Sara is a fantastic student and you should accept her at your college. For any more information about her, do email or call me.

An impassioned statement will be: Sara is every teacher’s delight. She is intelligent, hardworking, and ingenious and can only excel in anything she chooses to do. I highly recommend her – she’ll be an asset to your college. Please feel free to call me for more information about her.

  1. Describing your disposition besides your grades

All college admissions staff wants to know more than how good your high school GPA and SAT/ACT test scores are.

They will be on the lookout for some information about the kind of student you are, how you interact with your peers and teachers. So when a recommendation letter stops short of describing your disposition, it may make them speculate that perhaps your recommender doesn’t know you well enough or perhaps, he is holding something back about you. 

A statement just about your grades will be: Shaun did very well in my IB class and he was very popular in his class.

A statement about your disposition will be: Shaun did very well in my IB class and he was very popular in his class. He was constantly trying to help the underprivileged and worked with an NGO to direct excess wedding leftovers to the poor. I’d often see him after school hours, discussing possibilities with the school cafeteria manager. 

Sample Recommendation Letter

Dear Admissions Committee,

I teach English Literature at the Cathedral & John Connon School and Ryan was my student in 11th grade. He had an enquiring mind from day one. He’d constantly raise his hand to ask questions about passages that I’d be discussing in class. And once he got into the groove, he could hold his own and discuss the passage – that’s the kind of understanding he has of writing and appreciating literature.

I was never surprised when he almost always topped my class with an A+ even though I have the ill-repute of being a hard taskmaster. He subsequently went on to get a 7 on the IB exam and ensured his place in the school’s top rankers list.

Ryan is an outgoing and helpful student. I remember there was an exchange student that year and Ryan took him under his wing and helped him become comfortable in class. He always made it a point to encourage and give his inputs to students who were lagging behind in studies. We used to refer to him as ‘Mother Hen’.

Ryan set up his blog recently and posts updates regularly. He writes so well that I eagerly wait for his next post. Ryan also headed our school’s English Literature. He conducted workshops every month by inviting reputed writers – can’t imagine how he managed to pull that off every time?

I have high regard for Ryan as a student and a human being. I wholeheartedly recommend him for your undergraduate program. He has a bright future and will be an asset wherever he goes. We at the Cathedral & John Connon School will miss him when he moves to pursue higher studies.

Do call or email me if you have any further queries.

Sincerely,

John Brown

The St. Mary's Convent School

Requesting a Recommendation Letter

Once again, only chose a recommender who you know really well. The recommender could be the President of your School, but it will not move the application needle unless he or she knows you well and writes a truly personalized recommendation letter.

Get the timing right

Always request a recommendation letter at least two months prior to the application deadline. School teachers and staff are extremely busy during the application process as many students request application letters from them.

Do you want them to write a recommendation letter for you when they have a million things on their plate? Or when they have a weekend to write 10 recommendation letters?
NO!! You want them to write a recommendation letter for you when they have time on their plate and do not need to rush into it. So, be an early bird so that your teacher will have the time and the bandwidth to write a persuasive and effective letter for you. 

Ask for a recommendation letter - but how?

Nothing can match a request made in person. Make time to meet and request for a recommendation letter – you may choose to email about it in advance before meeting the person, but always meet your possible recommender. Simply sending an email request will convey that it is not such a high priority for you.

Now here are some example emails making requests.

For making a personal request:

Dear __ (Teachers’ name),

I hope you are doing well?

I will be pursuing undergraduate studies next year and will begin the application process soon. I am hoping that you will be able to give me guidance and tips on how I should go about it.

If you can spare some time for me, do let me know when it will be convenient for you to see me and I’ll positively adjust my schedule to meet you.

Thanks so much for your time and benevolence.

Best regards,

(Your name)

If the person is unavailable to meet you in person, the content for your email can be: 

Dear __ (Teachers’ name),

I hope you are doing well?

I will be pursuing undergraduate studies next year and will begin the application process soon and am hoping that you will be able to write a persuasive recommendation letter for me. (Include a genuine reason why a letter from this person means a lot to you – e.g., why you have immense regard for his outlook).

If you will write the letter for me, I can share the following documents with you to ease your task:

1. My grades and test scores 

2. My resume

3. The outline of my personal statement

4. Guidelines for recommendation letters given by the college

Thanks so much for your time and benevolence.

Best regards,

(Your name)

Request for a powerful recommendation letter

When you request for a recommendation letter, you shouldn’t beat around the bush. At the onset ask the letter writer if he/she will be at ease to write a powerful recommendation letter for you. Even if there is the slightest irresoluteness, you should thank the person for his time and leave. Connect with the next person in your list of possible recommendation letter writers and move forward.

It is in your interest to settle for someone who will willingly write a persuasive recommendation letter and enhance your chances of being accepted at your dream college.

Before asking someone for a recommendation letter, even if you have the slightest feeling that they will not put down a powerful recommendation letter for you, you shouldn’t even walk the distance to ask them for it.

The letter is about you and your future – it’s not a reflection of the writer.

Give your letter writer the necessary information

For your own sake, you should share as much information as possible about yourself with your recommendation letter writer. You could share the college application material and a list of your achievements to ensure he doesn’t miss out on anything. Although your teacher may brush aside your offer, it is best that you provide him with the following documents:

  • The list of your grades in high school
  • The final outline of your personal statement
  • Your resume
  • Guidelines for recommendation letters given by the college

Ensuring that you meet your timelines

Even though you may have asked your teacher for the recommendation letter well in advance, chances are that he hasn’t reverted more than four weeks after you made the request. Your dilemma is how to remind the teacher without offending him – after all he’s just helping you out.

But you know what? Your teacher will not mind being reminded – in fact, with the number of students asking them for recommendation letters, he’ll be glad to be reminded.

So to play safe, you should gently remind him a month before the application deadline. Do so by thanking him for the effort and check if the letter has been dispatched.

Your reminder email content can be:

Dear __ (Teachers’ name),

I hope you are doing well?

I propose to submit my undergraduate admissions application (mention date or # of weeks/days) and wish to remind you about your recommendation letter.

I hope the information I shared with you has been of help? Do you need any further inputs from me?

Thanks so much for your help.

Best regards,

(Your name)

Show appreciation to your recommender

In all the excitement when you begin to receive acceptance letters from colleges, and the flurry of activity in choosing a college, remember to update and thank your recommenders of which colleges have responded positively and where you plan to study.

It’s best that you make time to meet them personally to thank and update them. But a hand-written note will only accentuate your thankfulness.

The content of your thank you note can be:

Dear __ (Teachers’ name),

I wish to thank you for helping me with my college applications and guiding me of how best to go about it. And thank you so much for sending a letter of recommendation. 

I have been accepted by (college name) and intend to attend in the Fall.

I consider myself lucky that you are my mentor. Thanks so much for being there for me.

Best regards,

(Your name)

Bottom Line 

An honest and persuasive recommendation can make the difference between an acceptance and a rejection. Therefore, spend the time in crafting a persuasive and detailed recommendation letter than you can share with the recommenders.

Also, ensure that the content and message in both the recommendation letters are different. You want the admission officials to understand two different things about you through the two recommendation letters. 

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