Blog 🍎 School 3rd July 2023

How to Write a College Letter of Recommendation [Updated for 2023]

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James Leach

James is senior content marketing manager at BridgeU. He writes and directs content for BridgeU's university partners and our community of international schools

If you’ve been tasked with writing a college letter of recommendation, we’re here to help! In this post, we cover the differences between a teacher and counsellor recommendation, what you should include, and how you can portray your students in the best possible light.

One of many new counsellors’ biggest priorities is learning how to write a college letter of recommendation. Nailing this document can be the difference between students getting into their dream university and missing out on a spot. 

Unlike some other countries, universities and colleges in the USA famously use a holistic process when judging student applications. This means that they want to get to know the student as an individual, rather than relying solely on grades and test scores.

This is where the letter of recommendation comes in.

Along with the personal essay, letters of recommendation provide admissions officers with insights they could not gain from the rest of the application, and help them really get a feel for a student’s character – their passions, values, strengths, and goals.

With such an important role to play, recommendations hold substantial weight in admissions decisions, and can often be the deciding factor in whether a student is accepted or not.

So if you’re a counsellor or teacher and you want to make sure you really know how to write a college letter of recommendation, this blog post is for you!

In it, we dive deep into how to write a college letter of recommendation, focusing on areas like what should be included in a great recommendation letter, the differences between a teacher and a counsellor recommendation, and our top tips for helping you portray your students in the best possible light.

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Who should write the college letter of recommendation?

Most universities require applicants to provide multiple recommendation letters, including one from the students’ counsellor, and one to three from different subject teachers.

In some cases, it might be acceptable to include a recommendation from a different source, for example a sports coach or music teacher. However this should only be considered if a teacher or counsellor is not available, or if the student is applying for a specialist degree.

Before we dive into the details of writing recommendations, it’s worth touching on how recommendation writers are selected.

For the most part, a student is responsible for approaching potential recommendation writers (and there is plenty of guidance available to help them choose who to ask). However, there may be times when you or your members of staff aren’t sure whether they are qualified to write a particular student’s recommendation.

In these cases, it’s important to ask the following questions:

  • Have you worked closely with this student before?
  • Are you able to write about this student, and their achievements?
  • Can you provide a positive assessment of this student, either in an academic or personal context?

If the answer to all three of these questions is “yes”, then go ahead and write that recommendation! Remember, the purpose of the letter is to give a positive, honest and specific account of your students’ strengths and achievements – so ask yourself (or your members of staff) if this is possible.

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.

What should you include in a college letter of recommendation?

If you’re wondering how to write a college letter of recommendation, one of your biggest questions is probably simply “what?” – exactly what material should you talk about?

Different US institutions have slightly varying recommendation requirements. However, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) offers some useful prompts that can help you 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 (and of course these prompts are asking about an applicant’s suitability for MIT specifically), but they could be a good starting point.

It’s also worth noting that the content you should include will vary depending on whether you are writing a counsellor or teacher letter of recommendation.

Let’s cover each one in a bit more detail…

How to write a college recommendation letter as a counsellor 

The counsellor’s recommendation is designed to provide a holistic view of a student, and to give a rounded profile of a student’s progress and personal achievements during their time at secondary school.

This can include insights into a student’s extra-curricular activities, their impact on the school community, and how they might contribute to campus life at their chosen university.

If you are writing a counsellor’s letter of recommendation, you should also be prepared to discuss any mitigating circumstances that have affected a student’s personal or academic performance – for example, an illness, home life problems, or teaching and learning challenges.

Example: “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.”

How to write a college recommendation letter as a teacher

A teacher’s letter of recommendation should have a much narrower focus than a counsellor’s letter. In particular, it should centre around the student’s academic strengths, providing specific examples of how they have excelled in a classroom setting.

It’s likely (or even advisable) that if a student has asked you to write them a teacher letter of recommendation, they are applying to study a similar course or subject to the one that you teach. That makes the question of how to write a college recommendation letter a little simpler, as you’re in a great position to talk about what makes them passionate about their field of study, and why you believe they will excel in their chosen degree course.

Example:“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.”

Top tips for how to write a college recommendation letter

Whether you are writing a counsellor or teacher letter of recommendation, it’s important to portray your student in the best possible light. After all, your letter could be the deciding factor in whether they are accepted or not!

In this next section, we’ll cover some of our top tips to help you write a stand-out recommendation…

Make sure each recommendation is unique

Especially if you are writing letters of recommendation for multiple students, it might be tempting to reuse some of the same content.

However, this is something you should definitely steer clear of. As a rule of thumb, if a paragraph is general enough to be applicable to multiple students, it shouldn’t be in the recommendation at all!

Instead, make sure you highlight the individual strengths of each particular student, their unique achievements, and why you think they would be a good fit for their chosen institution.

Don’t repeat other parts of the student’s application

A letter of recommendation is supposed to complement a student’s application, but not repeat it. Make sure to read the student’s personal essay and any other recommendation letters, and provide new information that is not covered in these documents.

Likewise, it is not necessary to include quantitative data like test scores or activity lists, as these will be submitted by the student. Instead, focus on what these things indicate about the student. Perhaps they are a natural leader, or a born storyteller. Or maybe their good results are a consequence of a true dedication and passion for their subject.

Stick to the positives

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. Though you should try to be as honest as possible, the letter of recommendation is perhaps not the right place to mention a student’s rebellious streak!

Use specific examples to back up your endorsements

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

If you go back to the two examples we covered earlier, you’ll see that when they describe a student’s character traits, they back up their claims by referencing a particular time that the student displayed these traits.

Focus on quality, not quantity

Though there is no word limit to a college letter of recommendation, like there is with a UCAS reference, it’s best to keep it brief.

In general, we recommend that you keep your letter to under 1 page. As long as you have followed the other tips in this blog, this should be more than enough space to portray your students in a great light!

Writing international references and recommendations

Before we close off, we’ll leave you with a final piece of advice. If you have students who are applying to multiple international destinations, remember that not all application processes are the same.

Staying on top of the different deadlines and requirements can be challenging. Even students only overseeing their own applications, or teachers writing a select number of references, can quickly feel overwhelmed. For the counsellors who are managing a whole cohort’s worth of references and recommendations, the workload can be staggering!

So why not make the whole thing easier, simpler and more efficient? With the free BridgeU platform, you and your colleagues will have the tools and guidance to write the most powerful supporting documents for your students. Our organisational features then ensure you stay on top of where every application is up to, so that no deadline or document is ever missed.

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