How To Write A Letter Of Recommendation For A Student

An effective and sincere letter of recommendation is one way a student can stand out among the competition when making a job or college application. In this article we are going to discuss how to write an effective recommendation letter.

To highlight the value of a recommendation letter, here is what MIT admissions say about recommendation letters:

Because of our highly competitive applicant pool, letters of recommendation hold substantial weight in our admissions decisions. A well-written letter for an outstanding applicant can show impressive characteristics beyond their own self-advocacy.

Recommendation letters can provide valuable information that cannot be gleaned from the rest of the application.

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What you should know before writing a recommendation letter

I have seen many teachers writing recommendation letters for students they do not really know. Sometimes its as easy as just asking a student to provide you with a list of accomplishments and extracurricular activities and then create a letter from the data.

However, my advice is, if you don’t know the student well enough or don’t feel comfortable recommending them just tell the student to ask a teacher that knows them better. Refrain from writing recommendation letters for students you know nothing about. Whatever the students goes on to do can damage your reputation.

According to MIT admissions, a recommendation letter should try to address the following questions:

  • 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 them?
  • How does the applicant interact with teachers? With peers?
  • What will you remember most about this person?
  • Has the applicant ever experienced disappointment or failure? If so, how did they react?
  • Are there any unusual family or community circumstances of which we should be aware?

A recommendation letter is a formal letter

A student recommendation letter is a formal letter and should be written in a formal letter format. You can use "To Whom It May Concern" if you don’t know the recipient or something like "Dear Students Admissions Officer" or any other form of formal salutation.

Do not forget to print your school letterhead on the letter if you are mailing it.

What to Include in a Recommendation Letter for a Student

1. Contact Information

If the letter is to be printed, include your contact information, as well as the recipient’s information, at the top of the letter as with any formal letter.

2. Salutation

Start the body of the letter with a formal salutation.

3. Paragraph 1 – Introduction

The first paragraph is naturally the introduction. State the reasons you’re writing the letter. Include your connection to the person you are recommending, such how you know them, and for how long.

Use the student’s full name for the first reference and then just the first name after that to show how personally you know the student.

4. Paragraph 2 and 3 – Explain Why You’re Writing

Go into the main reason for writing the letter. Share information on the person you are writing about, such as why they are qualified and what they have to offer. Include details of the student’s academic and work performance.

Focus more on character than on achievements. The admission representatives can get the student’s achievements and grades from the academic certificates and transcripts. What they want to know is who really the student is and how their character can fit into their environment.

Give specific examples of how the student overcame obstacles and challenges to reach their goals. Use the student’s character as the main focal point.

5. Paragraph 4 – Summary

Write a brief summary of why you recommend the student without reservation. State why you believe the student is a good match for the college.

6. Paragraph 5 – Conclusion

Let the reader know how to contact you (phone, email, etc.) for a follow-up conversation if they need more information.

7. Signing off the Letter

Close your letter formally, including your name, title and position. If its a printed letter, include your signature as follows:



Your Name

Final thoughts

Remember that you are writing to an academic institution which means your reputation and credibility as an educator are at stake. Take note of the following points:

  • Thoroughly proofread for spelling and grammatical errors.
  • Use active voice with a formal yet warm tone.
  • Avoid clichés, such as vague phrases like "hard worker" and "diligent student".
  • Follow the submission guidelines, especially about where, how and when to send it.
  • Keep the size of the letter under a page, say between two-thirds to one full, single-spaced page. A too short letter seems to indicate you are less than impressed with the applicant while a too long letter risks boring the reader. Strike a balance.
  • If the letter is printed, use Times New Roman 12-point font.
  • If the letter is electronic, use Arial 11-point font.

Do you have any tips to add? We welcome your contributions and ideas. Please use the comment form below.

Juliet Muturuki

Quantity Surveyor and Freelance Writer.


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