How To Write a Letter of Recommendation for College

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Many people are asked to write letters of recommendation for students entering college. If you're a teacher, coach, employer or youth worker, you may be used to writing these letters. If you're new to it, you may wonder what exactly you should write. You want to do a good job; after all, this is a young person's college application you're affecting. Here are some things to consider when you write a college letter of recommendation.

  1. Get the parameters. Colleges sometimes have their own way of requesting letters of recommendation. Sometimes, a college will ask a person to write a letter of recommendation using a specific form or answering specific questions. Other times, no form is needed and the recommender is free to write however he chooses. Sometimes, a college will ask the letter writer to send the letter directly to the college. Other times (more rarely), you may be asked to return the letter to the student so he can include it with his application. Whatever the parameters may be, you want to follow them. Check with the student for whom you're writing the letter and make sure you have taken care of all requirements.
  2. Refresh your memory. If you are being asked to recommend a student you know well, it may not be difficult to call to mind all of the student's strengths. However, people are sometimes asked to recommend students with whom they have not had contact for semesters, or even years. If this is the case, there is nothing wrong with asking a student to provide you with a mini-resume so you can recall how she did in your class, what she does for extracurricular activities, etc. In fact, such a "cheat sheet" is not cheating at all; it's a very helpful tool that will allow you to write a complete letter.
  3. Use specifics. College admissions people read hundreds of letters of recommendation. While there are probably only so many ways you can say you recommend a student, it's the specifics about the student (as well as, perhaps, your reputation or position) that will make the student stand out. Working for a company for three summers is one thing, for example, but working for a company and getting promoted each year for excellent performance in a particular department is another. If you can be specific about their accomplishments, you will help them stand out. You will also provide the admissions people with what they want - a clearer picture of who this candidate really is.
  4. Accentuate the positive. Most of the time, it is easy to recommend someone who comes to you asking for a letter. But people who are asked to write many letters of recommendation will eventually come across the problem of writing a letter of recommendation for a student who is, in some ways, very "recommendable" but who may also have significant negative elements in his work record, disciplinary record or transcript. Sometimes, the best way to handle this situation is to focus on the positive and leave out the negative. Other times, the negative things may be positioned as "challenges" that the student overcame. On the other hand, if you don't feel like the student deserves a recommendation, it is probably best to be honest and say you're not the best person to write the letter (unless you are contractually obligated to do so).
  5. Put your best words forward. If you've ever received a letter of recommendation or job evaluation - something that will be going out into the world to tell people who you are - and found that there were misspellings, bad grammar, or horrible usage, you know it's important to make sure you're putting a well-written letter into the student's application packet. You want to communicate the recommendation clearly and strongly for the good of the student. You also want the admissions committee to think well of you, so that your opinion will hold some weight. If their impression is that you don't care enough to spell-check, then how much import will your letter carry? True, if you're a VIP, the quality of your letter may not be as important as the name on your letter head. But most teachers, coaches, mentors, and employers are not known commodities to the majority of colleges.

If you're asked to write a letter of recommendation for a student who is applying to college, many factors other than your letter will likely help to determine whether or not he is accepted. On the other hand, your letter of recommendation might put that student "over the top" or get him a second look if a new spot in the class becomes available. If someone asks you to recommend him to a college, chances are you already made a difference in his life in the past. A good letter of recommendation may help you make a positive difference in his future, too.


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