What Should be Included in the Letters of Recommendation for Colleges?

For aspiring high school senior students, the letter of recommendation is an important piece of their overall application. It rounds out the information provided by the applicant themselves with an objective perspective of their individual character, giving close, personal insight to the colleges they are applying for, by teachers or counselors that have worked with the student over a lengthy period of time.

Especially this year, when most of elite universities are opting to SAT optional policy, it’s clear that a recommendation letter can be of tremendous help and support to a college application - so what exactly should a teacher include to improve their student’s chances of achieving the college acceptance letters they want?

First, we’ll look at the letter of recommendation from the student’s perspective, and how they should go about asking for such a recommendation - after this, we’ll look at the specific content that a recommender should include in their letter.

How Should Students Ask for a Letter of Recommendation?

First things first, timing. Be sure to give your proposed recommender plenty of lead-time in this - a month is good, two months is ideal. Anything less than a month you might find yourself not a priority: the best recommenders will probably get dozens of request every semester, and all among the other teaching and academic obligations they have to meet. This will give them time to write a thoughtful and distinctive letter, while also ensuring you are top of their priority-list (or even make it on to their list at all).

In terms of who to ask, clearly someone who is teaching a subject relevant to your desired major is ideal. However, the most important attribute is that they know both your personality and abilities. Admission officers are looking to identify who you are, so finding a teacher who identifies you as a diligent student, is far better than one who is not as acquainted with this side - even if they might be more specific to the major you want to go on to study.

When you’ve found your desired recommender, ask them politely in person if they are comfortable and willing to give you a “strong” or “positive” letter of recommendation - this gives them the chance to address any concerns they might have, and allows you to identify before it’s too late the tone of recommendation they will actually produce. If they express any reservation at all, go find an alternate (unless you truly are out of all other options).

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As a student, additional thing you can do to ensure a strong letter of recommendation is to include a brief CV, detailing out to your recommender the more specific parts of your personality and achievements in high school. This way not only will you make life easier for your recommender, but it gives you certain control of the letter itself. Mention some, if not all of the following:

  • Why you enjoyed the recommender’s particular class (e.g. projects, teaching style, the subject itself) and how this relates to the major you’re looking to eventually study

  • What you learned about yourself through high school and during the lessons taught by your recommender. It’s important to demonstrate individual growth, so be sure to include displays of this too. For example, it might be the case that your initial pursuit of the sciences was only because your parents had their own ambitions for you to study this further. While it was something you disliked at first, classes, field trips, as well as the understanding of how important this subject was to the wider world, made you harness a passion for yourself, eventually leading the school team successfully in an external academic competition.

  • What you think makes you distinct from your fellow peers? Don’t take this as an opportunity to put others down - discuss this from a positive perspective, like perhaps the fact that while other students are still on their journey of discovering their own particular passion, you are happy and fortunate enough to have identified your own specific ambitions and drive in X,Y, and Z.

  • Mention the various accomplishments you’ve achieved and challenges overcome that demonstrate particular aspects of your character. Examples of achievements don’t have to be necessarily huge - even your soccer team winning an important game, or perhaps you achieved a B in a calculus class when previously all you were getting were D’s. This is a time to mention something to your teacher that they perhaps didn’t know about you before. When it comes to challenges, what you might look to mention are moving to a new school, maybe overcoming the language barrier if English isn’t your first language, or succeeding even in light of a disability.

  • Describe your college hopes and even wider ambitions if you have a good idea of what you want to ultimately achieve.

Now that we’ve spoken about how students should approach getting their letters of recommendation, let’s move on to what should be included from the perspective of the recommender, and how best to write this letter of support.

Get to the Point

The best letters of recommendation are not lengthy, rambling, protracted character pieces. Keep it to around three-quarters of a page in a professional typeface such as Times New Roman in font-size 11 or 12 (no comic sans please). Admission officers have countless numbers of letters to read, so being faced with anything longer than a page quickly drains their concentration. At the same time, anything shorter than our recommended three-quarters will look like you don’t have much to say about the individual your recommending. With only three quarters of a page to use, get to the point, keeping your structure tight, and content even tighter.

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Structure & Content

The best recommendation letters mention the following aspects of an applicant’s disposition:

1. Character

2. Intellectual passion

3. Intellectual abilities

4. Leadership skills

5. Positive qualities in extracurricular activities

Do not lose sight of the fact that this letter is to provide an external and yet personalized description of the student. The five elements mentioned above make sure this letter completes and compliments the picture formed of the individual to the admissions committee from their college essays.

When it comes to the structure of the essay, straightforward and simple is best:

Paragraph 1: Short Introduction

Identify yourself and your relationship with the student

Paragraphs 2 & 3: Describe the Student

Take two paragraphs to describe:

- The student’s best qualities

- How they stand out from their peers

With both of these, try to include examples from your experience with them in class, their own accomplishments, and any challenges they have had to overcome that also display these positive character traits. It’s important not to turn this letter into a list of specific skills and accomplishments (that’s what the resume is for) - just be sure to blend these real-life examples into the character narrative.

The next paragraph should focus on the student’s personal growth through high school, and their ambitions for the future. Mention how they’ve developed through high school, reflecting on their transition from freshman to junior. Following this is what you think they are looking to get out of college and their ambitions after college.

The final paragraph should be a summary assessment of the most salient points from above, concluding why the applicant will be a great addition to the college.

Don’t forget to include your contact details to the letter, have it formatted in an easy-to-read way, and proofread several times so as to avoid any spelling or grammatical mistakes.

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