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US university application: the essential guide to writing a college letter of recommendation

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For your students hoping to study at a US university, much will depend on factors such as their grade point average, SAT/ACT scores and the strength of any admissions essays that they will be required to write in the course of their application.

However, in addition to the student’s own application, US university and college admission staff also need an objective second opinion of the student’s academic and personal achievements, provided by their teachers and counselors. This is essential for US universities to gain a clear understanding of how a prospective student will perform in their chosen degree, and how they might contribute to campus life overall.

The process of writing a student’s recommendation can be complex, especially because no one university or college in the US system has the exact same requirements for a letter of recommendation, or even who is required to provide one.

So, as well as mastering the art of writing a good recommendation letter, it’s important that your teachers, counselors and students are on the same page during the planning and preparation phase.

Planning and preparing your students’ college recommendation letter

It’s often students who will approach teachers and counselors for a letter of recommendation, and there are plenty of resources advising students on who might be the best referee for them, and how they go about approaching the right member of staff.

Even so, the ultimate decision on who writes a student’s college letter of recommendation lies with the relevant teacher or counselor. Before agreeing to provide a letter of recommendation, it’s important for your members of staff to ask the following questions:

  • Am I the best qualified person to write about this student, and their achievements?
  • Can I provide a positive and objective assessment of their personal qualities and their academic performance?
  • Do I have all the relevant information on their intended destination?

Let’s take a look at these questions in a bit more detail…

Am I the best qualified person to write about this student?

A strong college letter of recommendation will come from a faculty member who has worked closely with a student, and understands their strengths and aspirations.

It may be that you believe you’re not best qualified to write about a particular student; possibly because you haven’t worked closely enough with them to provide a sufficiently detailed/comprehensive reference.

Note: If you haven’t worked closely with a student, this doesn’t necessarily disqualify you from becoming a referee – you just have to acknowledge this, and factor it into any letter of recommendation you write. If you still have lots of positive things to say about the student, you should definitely consider providing a written reference.

Can I provide a positive and objective assessment of this student?

It’s important to ask if you can give this student the most positive endorsement for their university application. If you’re writing about the best qualities and most notable achievements of a student, it helps to do so with conviction – a neutral, or lukewarm reference could actually be harmful to a student’s application.

Do I have all the relevant information about the student’s intended destination/chosen course?

It’s important that you and your school’s guidance team have the most relevant and up-to-date information about a particular US institution’s requirements for a letter of recommendation.

Different US universities and colleges will have slightly different requirements in terms of who is expected to write a student’s letter of recommendation. Some institutions can ask for one letter of recommendation, others will ask for two or three. Likewise some university admissions requirements ask for a letter of recommendation from teachers of different subjects, whilst others may ask for a letter from a teacher and a counselor.

The letter of recommendation will need to highlight a student’s suitability to a particular institution or field of study, which is why you need to talk to your students, and possess a good awareness of why they wish to study a particular course, and what their chosen university looks for in applicants.

Who is providing the college letter of recommendation?

A recommendation letter will also need to emphasise slightly different aspects of a student’s high school performance, depending on who is being asked to write it.

Writing a teacher’s recommendation letter

If you’re a subject teacher writing a college letter of recommendation, then you will most likely be required to focus on: a student’s performance in their studies; why you believe they will excel in their chosen degree course; how they’ve demonstrated academic excellence and independent thinking; and examples of their ability to overcome obstacles/challenges. You will also be in a position to comment on what drives them, or makes them passionate about their field of study.

However, any comments that a teacher may have on a particular student’s achievements outside the classroom are also very useful, and can only help to add weight and authority to a letter of recommendation.

Writing a counselor’s recommendation letter

A school counselor’s letter of recommendation is looked upon favourably by US universities. A counselor may be better placed to talk more about a student’s all round contribution to school life, and can offer insights into a student’s extra-curricular activities; they can also provide insight into how a student may contribute to campus life at their chosen university destination.

A counselor’s letter can also provide universities with a much more rounded profile of a student’s progress and personal achievements during their time at secondary school.

How to write the college letter of recommendation

There are a number of components of a strong letter of recommendation. Whilst a recommendation on behalf of a student must focus primarily on their academic achievements, it’s important that these achievements are placed in context, and help to create a narrative of who the student is, and why they have made such a strong impression on their teachers and counselors.

What are universities looking for in a letter of recommendation?

As we’ve already discussed, different US institutions have slightly varying recommendation requirements. However, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) offers some useful prompts that can help structure your writing. They include:

  • 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? Describe their personality and social skills.
  • What will you remember most about this person?
  • If you have knowledge of MIT, what leads you to believe MIT is a good match for this person? How might they fit into the MIT community and grow from the MIT experience?
  • 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?

It’s not necessary to include answers to all of these questions in a letter of recommendation (and of course these prompts are asking about an applicant’s suitability for MIT specifically), but they give you a good idea of what a strong letter needs to be: a positive, honest and specific account of your student’s achievements and personal strengths.

Structuring the recommendation letter

You’ll need to convey a lot of positive things about your student in a concise way. It’s advisable for your letter of recommendation not to exceed one page (two pages at a push). Below is a loose checklist of what you need to include (with some examples compiled from other successful recommendation letters).

Introduction: provide context of who you are and your relationship to your student

Your letter of recommendation needs to begin with a clear statement of how you know the student, and an unambiguous endorsement which will grab the attention of an admissions committee.

For example:

It’s my pleasure to recommend David for your undergraduate program, whom I have been fortunate to get to know in my capacity as his 11th grade AP English Literature and Composition teacher.

Instantly a person reviewing this application is made aware of how this teacher knows their student, and that this student has been a participant in the Advanced Placement program. From the beginning of this letter, we know that the student is academically gifted.

Body text: Place their academic strengths in context

It’s no use simply stating that a student is “gifted” or “hard-working”. A strong letter of recommendation will place a student’s academic excellence in context, providing specific examples of how they have excelled and why they have made an impression on you. Let’s look at the next section of David’s recommendation letter.

David has demonstrated a consistent ability to use independent thinking and rigorous analysis in both written assessments and classroom discussions. His essay on Christianity and redemption in “Crime and Punishment” demonstrated a level of insight beyond his years, and was one of the most accomplished essays I’ve had the pleasure of reading. He has been generous, thoughtful and witty in his interactions with his classmates, and is always keen to stimulate and drive debate.

A reader of this letter of recommendation would have no doubt as to why this student would thrive in a higher education environment. They have demonstrated passion and independent thinking in secondary school which will impress faculty members and admissions committees at college level.

Note: This letter steers clear of generic statements like “David is a strong writer”, rooting everything in specific examples.

Finally, this section also makes some observations about the student’s personal qualities, which gives a university valuable insight into their character. The rest of the recommendation letter can build on this.

Body text: discuss the student as an all-round individual

A letter of recommendation can also go on to discuss a student’s all-round contribution to school life. This allows a teacher or counselor to further build on their argument for why the student is a good candidate for their chosen university course, and can help to place their academic achievements in a wider context. So the next section of the recommendation may look like this:

David’s energy and intellect has seen him excel outside the classroom, and he’s made a valuable contribution to school life. He has represented our school as a delegate for Model United Nations, and demonstrates an understanding of world affairs and current events which has served to make him a highly skilled public speaker. His love of literature has also seen him contribute some fantastic articles to our school newspaper, and he certainly has an instinct for a compelling story.

In all aspects of school life, David demonstrates drive and a love for learning which I have no doubt will see him excel in his future career. His warmth, intelligence and good humour makes him a joy to teach, and a constant inspiration to his fellow students.

This would be the kind of recommendation letter written by a teacher who knew their student well. Again, it uses specific examples to show how this student has participated fully outside of the classroom, and gives an admissions committee an insight into the student’s overall character.

These personal insights can form a great bridge into the conclusion for your letter, as you reiterate why a student’s strengths will make them ideally placed to thrive in their chosen college degree course.

Conclusion: a clear & positive endorsement

You’ve stated why your student is such a great fit for their chosen college and degree course – now it’s time to give the reader a full, final expression of your confidence in this applicant.

Your conclusion should ideally be a short, concise paragraph. Here’s an example of how to sign off in style.

I have no doubt that the qualities that have enabled David to succeed in every aspect of school life will continue to serve him well in in his future studies. I would recommend him unreservedly to any university institution.

A letter should close by using powerful language to really sell your student, and express hope and optimism for their life post-secondary school. Remember, if you’ve used lots of evidence and specific examples in your letter, the conclusion should take care of itself.

Writing a college letter of recommendation: dos and don’ts

Do:

  • Use powerful, persuasive language at all times.
  • Use specific examples to back up your endorsements.
  • Keep your letter concise and structured – focus on quality not quantity.

Don’t:

  • Use cliches or generalisations when discussing a student – e.g. ‘David is a bright student’, ‘Rachel is the definition of a go-getter’
  • Write a recommendation which is ambivalent or neutral in tone.
  • Agree to write a recommendation for a student if you feel you’re not qualified to do so.

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