How to write a good Letter of Recommendation


As part of the admissions process, you may be asked by one or more of your students to write a letter of recommendation. These letters are incredibly important in the admissions process. They offer the university valuable insights about how the student behaves in the classroom and what the student's strengths and weaknesses are. Letters should be no longer than a page (single-spaced), and no less than 450 words. You can use the same letter for all universities for a given student.

What Makes A Good Letter?

  • Specific insights about the student. Try and include stories that paint a flattering picture of the student, or describe situations where he or she has excelled.
    • “When it was Tom’s turn to lead our class discussion about To Kill A Mockingbird, the sophisticated insights he brought to the class conversation about the miscarriage of justice the book describes were truly noteworthy.”
  • Explanation of where the student fits in the context of the school as whole. If you have taught the student in a particular course, talk about how demanding that course is, or how the student compares to the other students in your course.
    • “Jackie is one of the most talented writers I’ve come across in the past five years.”
    • “Adnan is by no means one of my strongest students; however, his determination is unparalleled, and his compassion and collaborative spirit never fail to amaze me.”
  • Emphasise the positive aspects of the student.
    • “Claire has pushed herself to sign up for an especially difficult Maths class; even though she struggled with exams at the beginning of the school year, she has persevered and her progress has been extraordinary.”
  • If you know the student outside of class, make sure to comment on that.
    • “Jim has worked tirelessly in his role as Editor-in-Chief of the school newspaper”

Things To Avoid

  • Describing students with generic words such as ‘hard-working’ and ‘shy’ can be counterproductive in a letter of recommendation. Instead, use words and phrases such as ‘thoughtful’ or ‘embraces a challenge.’
  • Commenting on a student’s physical appearance
  • Merely listing adjectives. It’s much better if you can tell stories.
  • Using the same letter for multiple students (!)
  • Broad generalisations and generic language.

Things To Include

  • Date that you wrote the letter
  • Your contact information
  • A brief description of how you know the student

Guiding Questions for Letters of Recommendation

Adapted from the MIT website

  • 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 and excites this person?
  • How does the applicant interact with teachers? With peers? Describe the applicant's personality and social skills.
  • What will you remember most about this person?
  • 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.

Helpful Words and Phrases

This section has been borrowed from a book by Rodale called The Synonym Finder.

Words that add specifics

Mental Qualities
astute capable clever educated erudite gifted ingenious intellectual inventive learned observant precocious prudent rational reasonable scholarly sensible shrewd subtle talented wise
Moral Qualities
decent exemplary honorable idealistic respectable straightforward temperate trustworthy truthful
Social Qualities
affable amiable amicable cheerful convivial cooperative cordial courteous ebullient genial gracious polite sensitive sociable tactful
General Personal Qualities
admirable ambitious amenable assiduous benevolent candid cautious charitable compassionate confident conscientious considerate courageous determined diligent discreet distinguished droll earnest efficient eloquent eminent enthusiastic garrulous generous gentle humane humble imposing impressive indifferent indomitable industrious influential ingenuous intrepid laconic magnanimous modest munificent natural nonchalant patient persevering persistent persuasive philosophical plucky punctual reserved resolute resourceful responsive reticent scrupulous sedate self- effacing self-reliant self-starter serene serious sober solemn strong-willed sympathetic taciturn tolerant unaffected unassuming uncompromising valorous witty zealous

The power of word choice

Words which suggest any reference to race, sex, religion, appearance, politics are usually inappropriate.
Words that are nondescript dilute the effectiveness of a letter
nice appropriate ordinary pleasant reasonable satisfactory meaningful good decent competent fairly civil solid very apt
Words that are powerful increase the effectiveness of a letter
edge expressive impact brilliant reputation significant imaginative focus capacity acclaim force innovative poise assertive endearing mature witty charismatic survivor sophisticated urbane intelligent prestige

Words that describe thinking

Knowledge ~ eliciting facts, testing recall and recognition
define describe identify label list match name recall recognise record relate repeat state underline write
Comprehension ~ translating, interpreting, summarising
convert describe discuss explain express extend generalise give examples of identify locate paraphrase report restate review select summarise tell translate
Application ~ using in situations new, unfamiliar, or with a different slant
apply compute demonstrate dramatise employ illustrate interpret operate practice prepare produce relate schedule shop show sketch solve use
Analysis ~ breaking down into parts, forms
analyse appraise calculate categorise compare contrast criticise debate diagram differentiate discriminate distinguish examine experiment inspect inventory outline question relate separate solve test
Synthesis ~ combining elements into a pattern not clearly there before
arrange assemble collect combine compose construct create design devise formulate generate invent manage modify organise plan prepare propose
Evaluation ~ evaluating according to some set of criteria and stating why
appraise assess choose compare conclude criticise estimate evaluate judge justify measure rate revise score select value



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