How to Write Recommendation Letters that Make a Difference

By Virginia Thompson,2014-10-29 17:34
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How to Write Recommendation Letters that Make a Difference

    How to Write Recommendation

    Letters that Make a Difference

Why Recommendation Letters Matter

    There is only so much that a college admissions or scholarship selection panel can learn about a student from his/her transcripts, test scores, and lists of activities. Letters of recommendation help reviewers understand a student’s motivations and values and help

    them distinguish one student from another.

    A strong recommendation letter explains:

     Who the student is beyond his/her grades, test scores and lists of activities

     at work

    other parts of the application

     Special circumstances that should be taken into account such as challenges

    faced, the student’s or community’s socio-economic background or limited

    course offerings at her/his school attended.

    Recommendation letters can help emphasize:

     ia for selection


    Six Tips for Preparing Recommendation Letters

    TIP 1: Know Your Objectives.

    Before you start writing, be sure you are clear on the type of information the colleges and scholarship organizations are seeking in your letter. For example:

     • Is there a specific question you need to answer?

     • Is the selection criteria described in the application materials? (Be sure you

    explain how the student meets the criteria.)

     • Are there special circumstances about the student’s socio-economic

    background or school limitations you would like the selection committee to know?

TIP 2: Create a 60 Second Outline.

    Every letter should include the following:

     • Name of student: _________________________________________________

     • Letter is in support of student’s application for: __________________________


    • Academic accomplishment or point to convey: _____________________________

    Example: ______________________________________________________________

     • Extracurricular accomplishment or point to convey: ______________________

    Example: ______________________________________________________________

     • Personal accomplishment or point to convey: ___________________________

    Example: ______________________________________________________________

     • Anything else? ___________________________________________________

    This format is flexible. For one student, you may have one academic, one extracurricular, and one personal accomplishment to cover. For another you may want to address two academic points and one personal one.


    TIP 3: Build on Your Outline, Strategically.

     • Be credible, don’t gush. Selection committees value honesty. They will take

    more seriously a letter which describes a student with one or two unique qualities,

    and less seriously, a letter which seems to over-hype the greatness of a

    supposed superstar.

     • Go deep rather than broad. It’s better to use one compelling story that

    illustrates a rare quality in a student than a list of 20 great facets of an “all

    around” student.

     • Try to highlight one or two special contributions. The college or scholarship

    selection committee will already have a list of the student’s activities. Writing to

    illustrate how the student made a difference in an activity or as a member of a

    club can be helpful, especially if this would not be readily apparent from the other

    application materials.

     • Give vivid examples to describe the student’s qualities. Over-used descriptors

    like “team player,” “natural leader” or “friendly” don’t offer much to readers

    without further explanation. Try to illustrate special traits of your student with

    examples like the following:

To illustrate that a student is “an effective mediator,” you might add:

    “She has shown the ability to suggest constructive solutions when

    disagreements come up between other players on the team. For

    example, when new members joined the team and disagreed with the

    more senior players about . . . “

To illustrate a student’s leadership skills, you might share a story such as:

    “Last year, he organized a canned food drive for the homeless. He

    mobilized volunteers to publicize the drive, collect the canned goods and

    take them to the homeless shelter. Because of his efforts the drive was a

    success and resulted in more than 1,000 cans of food. Through this effort,

    he showed his ability to organize, motivate others and produce results.”


TIP 4: Know Which Traits to Highlight.

    Traits worth highlighting (choose one or two):; Character ; Compassion for others ; Integrity ; Ability to perform under pressure

    ; Perseverance ; Reliability with responsibilities

    ; Judgment ; Decisiveness

    ; Motivation ; Evidence of intellectual ability ; Inquiring attitude ; Attitude in class ; Maturity ; Response to assignments ; Ability to accept constructive ; Classroom interaction

    criticism ; In-class discussion ; Creativity ; Written work

    ; Confidence ; Communication skills ; Relationships with classmates ; Ability to share ideas

    and teachers

; Tenaciousness

Traits which are not as helpful to emphasize:

    ; Nice

    ; Likeable

    ; Popular

    ; Sweet

    ; Kind

    ; Pleasant


TIP 5: Avoid Common Errors.

     • Using the same letter for multiple students. Sure, it saves time, but if you’re

    running short on time, it’s better to say no to a student than send a letter written

    for someone else.

     • Inconsistency in the application materials. For example, the student’s intended

    major in the application form should match that on the recommendation letter.

     • Writing more than one page. Resist the temptation to exceed one page. The

    selection committee most likely would only read the first page anyway.

     • Not saving a copy. When students ask for additional letters later, it helps to

    have a saved copy to just print and send.

     • Trying to do it all. Never feel guilty about saying no to a student if you simply

    have too many recommendation letters to write or if you don’t know the student

    well enough. Or, if you are pressed for time, don’t be afraid to ask the students

    to provide more information or background to make the writing go more quickly.

TIP 6: Communicate with the Reviewers.

    Don’t be afraid to ask college representatives for examples of strong and weak recommendation letters. They’re more than happy to share these with you because they know that this will make the overall quality of letters higher.

Let students help you help them!

    You can ask students who request letters of recommendation to complete this template so you will have a better understanding of how to write the letter.


    Recommendation Letter Requirements for Students

    Dear ______________,

    I will do my best to write a strong letter of recommendation for you. You can help me do this, by providing me with the following checked items:

    ; I will be preparing letters on a “first come, first served”

    basis. You will have to wait your turn if others have asked for my help before you.

    To be safe, you should let me know you need a letter from me __________ days

    before it needs to be mailed out.


    ; This will help me

    see exactly what you are applying for, and how you are presenting yourself to the

    selection committee.

    ; This can help me describe your best subjects.

    ; This will

    help me highlight experiences or achievements you’ve had outside of school (at work

    or as a volunteer, etc).

    ; If you have an essay which describes your future

    goals, this can help me describe what you are working to achieve. ; -addressed, stamped envelope. This will help make sure that your letter gets to

    the right place.

    ; It would help me if, _____ days before the deadline, you check in

    with me again, about your request, so we can be sure I have everything I need from


Thank you,



    Student Background Information Form

    Student name: _________________________________________________________________ Phone number: ________________________________________________________________ Email address: _________________________________________________________________

    Please attach a resume or complete below.


    Graduation year: ____________________________ GPA: ______________________________ Academic honors or awards: ______________________________________________________ _____________________________________________________________________________ Any special courses you’ve taken over the summer or at another campus?: _________________

    _____________________________________________________________________________ WORK EXPERIENCE (optional)

    Employer: _____________________________ Your job title: ____________________________ Date started and ended: __________________________ Hours per week: _________________ Responsibilities: ________________________________________________________________ _____________________________________________________________________________ EXTRACURRICULAR ACTIVITIES

    Sports you participate in: _________________________________________________________ Date started and ended: ___________________________ Hours per week: ________________ Achievements you are proud of: ___________________________________________________ Clubs you participate in: _________________________________________________________ Date started and ended: ___________________________ Hours per week: ________________ Achievements you are proud of: ___________________________________________________ Hobbies or talents: ______________________________________________________________ Date started and ended: ___________________________ Hours per week: ________________ Achievements you are proud of: ___________________________________________________ Leadership positions (student government, club officer, etc): _____________________________ Date started and ended: ___________________________ Hours per week: ________________ Achievements you are proud of: ___________________________________________________ Community and/or volunteer experience: ____________________________________________ Date started and ended: ___________________________ Hours per week: ________________ Achievements you are proud of: ___________________________________________________


    Recommendation Letter Request Form

    Please complete one copy of this form for each recommendation letter you need. Student name: __________________________________________________________ Phone number: _________________________________________________________ Email address: __________________________________________________________ Recommendation Deadline: _______________________________________________ College or scholarship organization: _________________________________________ Address: _______________________________________________________________ City: ________________________________ State: ___________ Zip: _____________ Website address: ________________________________________________________ Special notes:

    Any selection criteria I should know about? (For example, if my letter is meant to support your application for an athletic award, I should write something about your athletic achievements.)

    Any specific things about yourself that you’d like me to emphasize? (I will do my best,

    but I can’t promise that I can include everything you ask for.)

    Forms or stationery? The letter should be:

Delivery of letter:


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