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You’ve been asked to write a letter of recommendation for a student or someone you know. But if this is your first time writing a letter of recommendation, the task can feel a bit intimidating. A letter of recommendation from an academic or professional advisor can help clinch a student’s scholarship decision or admission decision for an international study program, for example.
Not only does the letter of recommendation provide an endorsement of the student from someone who knows them well, but it can also help give the committee reviewing applications a more well-rounded perspective of who the student is.
- How to write a letter of recommendation
- What not to do in a letter of recommendation
- Additional tips for writing a letter of recommendation
How to write a letter of recommendation
Many academic programs and scholarships require applicants to submit one or more letters of recommendation as part of the application process. To some colleges, they are as essential as filling out the FAFSA.
Not only are letters of recommendation critical, but they also offer an opportunity to emphasize why the applicant would be a good candidate for their chosen college or university. Letters of recommendation humanize applicants and are similar to cover letters for resumes: a succinct summary of what makes them unique and skilled.
What should the letter include?
A letter of recommendation for a student applying for a college scholarship generally needs to include:
- A letterhead
- An introductory paragraph
- Two to three main paragraphs
- A conclusion
- A signature
Here’s how to format and write each of these sections:
If you’re associated with an institution or organization that has its own printed letterhead, it’s a good idea to use. But you’ll still need to provide your specific contact information and other details, generally in the top right or left-hand corner of the page. These details include:
- Your full name
- Your title
- Name of your school or university, including the logo
- Street address
- City, State, Zip Code
- Your preferred contact information (email, phone number, etc)
Start by asserting that you recommend the applicant for the scholarship or program. From there, explain who you are, how you know the candidate, and for how long.
Discuss any special background, credentials, or knowledge you may have that gives you particular insight into how well the applicant fits the criteria for the program. For instance, if you are an alumnus of the school, scholarship, or program your student is applying for, you may want to mention that here.
Describe how the candidate fits the scholarship criteria. This may include things like your student’s grades or academic performance, but there’s no need to limit yourself to a simple listing of what the applicant has accomplished. The student has plenty of space elsewhere in their application to provide that information.
The best letters of recommendation will take the time to share a story about the applicant. You may want to relate an incident when the candidate truly impressed you, showed strength of character or compassion, or demonstrated their problem-solving abilities.
These are the sorts of personal characteristics that are difficult to demonstrate with transcripts or to say about oneself in an application essay, so it’s up to your letter of recommendation to share with the committee.
You will end your letter of recommendation with a concluding paragraph, emphasizing your endorsement of the applicant. This is also where you invite the reader of the letter to contact you via email or telephone should there be any further questions about the candidate.
Letters of recommendation must also be signed by hand in order to certify its authenticity. Some application processes also require the letter writer to seal the letter and sign the sealed flap of the envelope. Be sure to follow any such certification requirements to ensure your letter is included in your student’s application.
How long should a letter of recommendation be?
Typically, a scholarship letter of recommendation should fill an entire page. Sometimes, an additional half page is needed.
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What not to do in a letter of recommendation
Here are a few things to avoid when writing a letter of recommendation:
Waiting until the last minute
This applies both to the applicant and writer. When you’re asked to write a letter of recommendation, it’s imperative that you’re given ample time to write.
Keep college deadlines in mind and ask the applicant if there are any deadlines you need to be aware of. But generally, you should have at least three weeks to write the letter in addition to a specified due date. Not only is it courteous, but it also allows you to avoid any time-induced mistakes.
Being too generic
As mentioned before, letters of recommendation help humanize applicants. You should emphasize what makes the applicant unique, such as noteworthy talents, positive character traits linked to specific achievements (for example, leadership skills could be connected to participation in student government), and or contextualized academic achievements.
Applicants can assist writers in avoiding generalized letters of recommendation by supplying the writer with a list of noteworthy achievements.
Talking only about the applicant
Part of what legitimizes a letter of recommendation is the person who writes it. While the majority of the letter needs to be about the applicant, there should be information included about you in the first paragraph.
Additional tips for writing a letter of recommendation
Here are a few more tips for writing a letter of recommendation:
Research the school
It’s important to know what school the applicant is applying to. Colleges and universities differ in their cultures and values, as some schools may emphasize their history, while others their diversity. Knowing the culture of a school can help you understand what the school finds the most important in an applicant.
Additionally, a school may specialize in specific fields and majors. For instance, a school may have an excellent nursing program and is well known for producing the best nurses in the nation.
By knowing the applicant’s intended major and their related skills, the writer can specify why the applicant would be a perfect fit for the school’s educational program.
A letter of recommendation should be concise. Every sentence should add something that furthers the intended purpose of the letter: to communicate why the applicant should be admitted to the college or university.
Colleges and universities go through a large number of letters of recommendation from thousands of applicants. While you must fit in as much important information as possible, you should also keep your writing engaging and interesting.
Follow school instructions
Different schools will have different requirements for letters of recommendation. Some schools require one letter of recommendation for the admission process while others may require three or more.
Additionally, some colleges will require specific people to write a letter of recommendation, such as a recent teacher. Schools can also have specific forms that must be filled out by the writer.
Look at examples
Some schools provide examples of excellent letters of recommendation. Letters of recommendation are not meant to deter applicants. Schools want to help applicants achieve their educational goals and will supply the necessary tools to do so.
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Emily Guy-Birken has contributed to the reporting of this article.