How to write a letter of recommendation that strengthens a student’s college application

You may be asked to write a recommendation for students during their college application process. As students hope for an early decision in their favor and, often, financial aid, a well-written recommendation can give them a powerful advantage in today’s competitive environment.

What's the purpose of a letter of recommendation?

University of Cincinnati Admissions representatives review thousands of applications each year, most of them from academically qualified candidates. A strong recommendation letter can make a student stand out from the other applicants, and ultimately tip the needle in their favor. UC admissions reviews applicants holistically, so all letters of recommendation are considered in a student’s application.

Recommendation do’s

The best recommendation letters provide some idea of who the person is — the whole person. Is the student intellectually curious, articulate or creative, do they have positive character traits?

  • Keep it concise. Summarize in one sentence how you know the student, identify their strengths, and provide 1-2 examples or stories.
  • Use concrete examples, not generalizations. Tell stories that illustrate the student’s character.
  • If you know what major the student is looking at, you can incorporate details of why that student would be a good fit for that major and career path.
  • Make each letter unique. Omit any statement that could apply to several or all of the students you may be recommending.

How to structure a letter of recommendation

This is a business letter, so it should have a business structure, and be no longer than one page.

Here’s what should be included in a letter of recommendation:

The body of the letter

Many counselors recommend beginning with a statement of how you know the student (did you teach them in a subject, coach them in a sport or supervise them in an internship?) and for how long you’ve known them. Use the student’s full name in the first mention, then just the first name. Then, in two paragraphs, include specifics such as these:

  • Relate a story or incident that demonstrates the student’s character: personal strengths, intellectual interests, integrity or leadership ability. If the student has experienced disappointment or failure, how did they react?
  • Describe the student’s personality. How do they interact with teachers and peers?
  • What will you remember most about this student?

Direct recommendation

Conclude with a sincere statement recommending the student to the specific college or university. If the student is sending the letter to a single institution, mention the school in your conclusion.

The closing

Using the student’s full name again, encourage the college to contact you with any further questions. Close with “Best regards,” and include your title and school after your typed name and signature.

A memorable letter of recommendation can go a long way toward helping students reach their academic and life goals.

Featured image at top: Colleen Kelley/University of Cincinnati

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