What Makes a Good College Recommendation Letter?

Whoever you ask to write college letters of recommendation should like and know you well.
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What the people who know you best say about you can have a powerful impact in admissions offices. Recommendation letters may be the last piece of an application that you think about, but their importance can do much to help -- or hurt -- your chances of acceptance. Even if college is a few years off, it’s a good idea to start thinking about what those letters might say and whom you should ask to write one on your behalf.

1 Knowledge about the Candidate

The very best letters of recommendation are written by people who like and know you well. Because they write from genuine affection and knowledge, the letter inevitably paints an accurate picture of who you are while focusing on your best attributes. Good letters often speak to the longevity of a relationship and point to the growth and maturation of a student over time. They may include anecdotes or examples that reflect a student’s integrity and good character. Plus, writers who know you and like you will willingly offer to be available for follow-up questions.

2 Clear Prose

Letters should be well written and concise. Students often choose English teachers for the letter-writing task, correctly believing that those teachers have a fine command of the English language. However, it’s important to remember that while the letter should sound professional and sincere, it is the candidate who is being judged, not the letter-writer. What the letter says about the student is more important than the poetic prose of the letter writer.

3 Good Credentials

The letter writer should introduce himself and his relationship to the student. He should also briefly mention his own credentials. The word of a department head who has seen a student excel throughout his years in school will likely carry more weight than an individual teacher. Likewise, prominent members of the community make excellent letter-writers. If your work on a political campaign caught the candidate’s attention and he goes on to become a U.S. senator, you might decide to ask for the senator’s help. Networking begins as soon as you allow it to and lasts throughout college and your life.

4 Varied Sources

Students often choose a favorite teacher or coach for letters of recommendation. Academic and extracurricular resources are indeed good starting points. However, good letters can also come from bosses, community members, religious leaders and family friends. A bit of variety in sources can point to the well-roundedness of the student.

5 Connection to the Goal

The end goal for a letter of recommendation is to help a student get accepted to college.
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The best letters connect the student to his goal in a natural and fitting manner. An alumnus of a college may pen a letter for his young friend wishing to attend the same university. Or for a student wishing to attend a college like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the letter-writer might point to science projects, awards and camps the student attended. The letter should demonstrate how a student would be a natural fit for the campus, the coursework and the college.

Linda Emma is a long-standing writer and editor. She is also a digital marketing professional and published author with more than 20 years experience in media and business. She works as a content manager and professional writing tutor at a private New England college. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Northeastern University.