You’ve written a compelling personal statement, your SAT scores are in, and your transcript reflects the years of hard work you’ve put in to get to this point. Now, you turn to the part of the application that may feel out of your hands: the recommendation letter for college.
It’s true that the college reference letter is not written by you; it’s generally written by a teacher, counselor, coach, employer, or other individuals who is in a position to assess your capabilities and potential. Nevertheless, as the applicant, it’s important to understand what makes a strong recommendation letter.
Furthermore, while this is not encouraged by universities, it is not uncommon for a recommender to ask the student to write a draft of the letter for them – perhaps they are busy, or just want to get a sense of what you would like them to write about you. While it’s always better for the letter to be written by the individual who signs it, it is possible that you may find yourself in a position where you need to draft such a letter for yourself, and don’t know where to turn. This article from EssayEdge may also be helpful in that case.
The Structure of a College Recommendation Letter
The college recommendation letter should begin with the recommender introducing themselves, and explaining how they know you. This is important to provide context, so the admissions committee understands:
- who this person is to you
- what their qualifications are in the relevant field
- and that they know you well enough to accurately evaluate your strengths
After that brief introduction, the letter should elaborate on specific experiences that the recommender has had with you, which demonstrate your strong suits, skills, character, personality, or any other positive qualities that will make the college know you will be a great fit for their community.
If the letter is written by a teacher, they might choose to discuss specific class assignments that you accomplished to an extraordinary level, or instances when you went above and beyond the requirements of a specific project or opportunity. They might also refer to moments in class when you showed an articulate understanding of the class topic, or when you proved that you were truly passionate about the subject. Beyond academic or athletic achievement, a recommender might also draw from their observations of how you have interacted with your peers, as a way to reflect on your genuine character, kind nature, sense of humor, or other positive personality traits.
It can also be a good idea for the letter to touch on the area of your weaknesses, or areas where you might be able to demonstrate improvement. While it is important the letter come off as ultimately positive and full of praise, it can still add to the objectivity and authority of a letter for it to acknowledge that you are still growing. Nevertheless, whenever bringing up a weakness in this way, it is helpful if the recommender can express optimism about how you will overcome this limitation, drawing from concrete examples of how your character has shown your ability to develop positively as an individual and learn from your mistakes.
Finally, a letter of recommendation for college should end with the recommender reiterating your excellent potential, and how they are confident you will be a great addition to the college community. If they like, they might also offer the admissions committee to feel free to contact them if they have any further questions, or need clarification on anything. They will then sign the letter at the bottom, and provide their contact information.
In summary, the broad structure will be:
- recommender introduction
- 2-4 specific stories or experiences they’ve had with you, reflecting on your positive qualities
- (optional) 1 weakness, contextualized to show growth potential
- an optimistic prediction of your future success in college and beyond
- signature and contact information
What to Include in a Letter of Recommendation for College
Beyond the structure, it can be useful to understand the purpose and context in order to know how to write a college recommendation letter.
It’s important to remember that the admissions officers will already have access to your grades, your standardized test scores, your list of extracurricular activities, and your demographic data. With your personal statement and any additional essays or short answer questions, you have an opportunity to communicate your personal voice, often by telling stories that elaborate upon the bullet points of the numbers and facts from the other parts of your application. As for the recommendation letter, this is where the college can read an objective opinion from a third party, which can illustrate how you are not the only one who thinks you’re great!
For this reason, a recommendation letter should detail specific, personal experiences that this recommender has had with you. The reference letter builds upon the foundation of your essays, grades, and test scores, so it can be helpful to refer to specific activities or achievements that might be mentioned briefly elsewhere in the application, and can be verified now by a credible source who knows you well. The more personal, the better – this not only goes for your essays, but for your recommendation letters as well. A letter will go a long way when it is written by someone who clearly knows you beyond the superficial facts of your participation in school. If you have made an impact on them as a teacher or other senior individual, then you will likely make a positive impact on your future peers and professors as well.
How to Approach a Recommender
Especially when you would like to ask a teacher in your junior or senior year of high school to write a letter, it is essential to remember that they may be tasked with writing letters of recommendation for many students. For this reason, it is advisable to ask the individual whether they have the time and are able to write and edit recommendation letter. If they seem hesitant, perhaps they are not the right person to ask. You should not only think of what classes you got the best grades in, but also with whom you might have a relationship that extends beyond the scope of the classroom, even for some small reason. The best letter writers will be the ones who feel like they know you well, even if the class they teach isn’t your best subject.
Finally, once they have written the letter for you, express gratitude and thank them for the time they have put in to assist you in this journey to college. After writing the letter, they will be invested in your success, and remember to keep them informed about whether you were admitted, and where you end up deciding to go. Once you’re in college, these high school relationships may seem far away, but it’s always a great idea to keep in touch with those who have helped you along the way.