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Duke University
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What Makes a Good Recommendation Letter?

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Recommendation letters play a unique role in your college application. They’re part of what’s called the “soft” side of your application – things like your personal essays or extracurriculars that, while not as easily quantifiable as factors like GPA or test scores, still shed light upon an applicant’s interests, talents, and academic ability. Recommendation letters are especially important in that they represent how you’re perceived by others, particularly those who have engaged with you in an academic or extracurricular setting.



Thus, you unfortunately cannot write or significantly influence the contents of your recommendation letters in any way. However, if there are certain aspects of your personality, accomplishments, or unique circumstances that you’d like to be reflected in your essay, you can speak with your chosen recommenders about including them in your letter. In this blog post, we’ll discuss the components of successful letters of recommendation, and how you work with your recommender to ensure your letter is an honest, accurate reflection of your ability.


Demonstrates Academic Ability


The primary consideration upon which colleges will make their admission decision is your academic ability. Therefore, you want your recommendation letters to showcase your unique talents and skills that make you an important contributor in any classroom. While most recommenders know to include details of a student’s performance in class in a letter, some teachers are better suited than others to present you in the best light.


Generally, it is a smart idea to solicit letters of recommendation from teachers in whose class(es) you performed strongly. If you have an infallible track record of on-time assignments, insightful contributions to class discussions, and good test scores, your teacher will likely be eager to convey your smarts and diligence to an admissions committee.


A letter is even stronger if it can communicate both aptitude and passion. A letter from a teacher of a subject you both did well in and thoroughly enjoyed can be doubly effective. Not only can this teacher speak to your competence in the classroom, but also your intellectual vitality and love of learning: two characteristics that are highly prized in college admissions.


The above is especially true if the class in question is related to the subject you hope to major in. For example, if you plan to major in American Studies, made straight A’s in your AP US History class, and were the first to raise your hand when the teacher asked a question, getting a letter of recommendation from your APUSH teacher is a win-win-win. You demonstrate academic skill and passion in your potential field of concentration, which signals to colleges that you will make a valuable addition to that department at their school. Being able to showcase specifically what you would bring to a university makes for an effective letter.


If you performed well in a class, but never formed a particularly close relationship with the teacher, this doesn’t necessarily meant they won’t be able to write you a good letter. While a teacher with whom you had a strong relationship may be a stronger recommender, if no such figure comes to mind, it’s perfectly okay to seek a recommendation from a teacher whose class you did well in, even if you didn’t get to know them very well. If you choose a teacher like this to write a recommendation, you may want to schedule a meeting or otherwise make an effort to spend more time with them (perhaps during lunch or breaks) and communicate some of your interests, passions, and opinions.


However, you don’t have to have earned A’s in a teacher’s class in order for them to write you a strong recommendation letter. Just as effective as letters detailing natural ability in a subject are those that describe hard work, determination, and effort to succeed in a class, even if the course material doesn’t come naturally. While colleges undoubtedly value academic skill, they also value students who work hard, struggle, and go the extra mile in a class, even if that doesn’t always result in perfect grades.


If you are particularly proud of the effort you put into your Calculus BC class, even if you only pulled a B+, don’t immediately rule out asking that teacher for a recommendation. The proof of your dedication may be more impressive to admissions committees than you think. Your teacher probably greatly appreciated to work you put into his or her class, and chances are, adcoms will too.


Demonstrates Personal Characteristics


As we mentioned before, recommendation letters are a “soft” component of your application, more qualitative in nature than quantitative. Though they may not be as direct a measure for evaluating reading comprehension or problem solving skills as a standardized test score, they do allow admissions committees to understand students on a personal level in a way SAT scores never could.


Accordingly, recommendation letters are a great opportunity for you to demonstrate personal qualities of which you are proud on your application. While you likely have incorporated these into your personal essay(s) in some way, hearing accounts of your generosity, eagerness to learn, or open-mindedness from the mouths of others can make an even stronger impression on adcoms.


A good letter of recommendation not only communicates your strongest characteristics to adcoms, but supports them with evidence as well. This is why it’s important to solicit recommendations from recent teachers; they will be best equipped to recall specific instances in which you demonstrated laudable behavior.


For example, if you pride yourself on your tolerance of opposing viewpoints, a good recommendation letter would be one from a government or history teacher, as those subjects facilitate debate and discussion in class. A strong recommendation letter would contain both an acknowledgement of your tolerant nature, as well as an anecdote that supports this claim. This shows adcoms that you can be relied upon to bring this same attitude of tolerance to the classrooms of their school, and contribute to healthy and constructive debate on campus.


Discusses Applicant as Both a Student and an Individual


We’ve discussed how a letter of recommendation should address both your academic and personal strengths. One of the trickiest things to get right in a recommendation letter, but one that will ultimately make for the most effective letter, is to weave these characteristics together in a way that allows adcoms to understand how you would perform not only as a student in class, but also as a member of the greater campus community.


Many characteristics are conducive to success both in academics and in one’s personal life. For example, a student who is hard-working and dedicated can bring those qualities to their performance in the classroom, but also to the relationships they form with other students and their participation in extracurricular groups on campus. An effective letter highlights your best characteristics and demonstrates how you apply them across all spheres of your life.


At the end of the day, if a student has shown they have the baseline academic ability to succeed at a school, the most important consideration is how they’ll contribute to the campus community. If your letter of recommendation shows that your unique personality traits allow you to excel both academically and socially, it will go a long way in advancing your application.


Discusses Any Unique Personal Circumstances


Some students have exceptional personal circumstances that affected their high school performance in some way – prolonged mental or physical illness, a death in the family, or a myriad of other reasons can all have adverse effects on grades, class participation, extracurricular participation, etc.


While you can use the Additional Information section of the Common App to discuss such circumstances, corroboration of these statements by a trusted official like a teacher or counselor can reassure adcoms that a dip in performance is not a reflection of a lack of ability or dedication on your part. If this applies to you, you should request that your recommenders devote some space on their letters to discussing your personal circumstances and reiterating that they are not reflective of your actual academic capacity.


Your recommendation should contain a first-hand account of your situation – otherwise, it may sound artificial. If you struggled with depression your junior year, don’t ask a recommender from sophomore year to discuss it in a letter, unless you maintained regular correspondence with them throughout your junior year (note that we recommend primarily seeking recommendations from junior year teachers).


Working with Your Recommender


As we stated previously, you are not allowed to write your own recommendation letter, nor are you allowed to play a primary role in determining what content will be included in your letter. That being said, most teachers will be receptive to your input when writing your recommendation letters.


If there are specific qualities, accomplishments, or circumstances you’d like your recommender to discuss in their letter, your best bet is to schedule a meeting with them to discuss your requests. To make things as easy for your recommender as possible (remember, they are doing you a favor), bring a resume and a printed copy of the points you’d like included in your letter along with you to the meeting, or send electronic copies of this information to your recommender beforehand.


When discussing the contents of your letter with your recommender, always err on the side of deference. While you are certainly permitted to express what you would like your letter to reflect, your recommender has the final say on what they want to include, so be careful not to come across as pushy or demanding. If you are polite, specific, and gracious when speaking with your recommender, they’ll likely be happy to accommodate your wishes, at least to an extent.


There are a couple ways of approaching this topic with your recommender that can diffuse the awkwardness of essentially asking another person to write about how great you are. One smart approach is to frame the discussion by first informing your teacher that many of the schools to which you’re applying are competitive and thanking them for taking the time to write a letter. When discussing personality traits you would like to be highlighted in the letter, you can phrase it as “this school particularly values an eagerness to learn in students, so if you could discuss occasions in which I have demonstrated initiative in your classroom, that would be great”. You can even include anecdotes that you believe demonstrate your personality traits in the notes you provide to your recommender.


In any case, the chances are that the same personal qualities you notice in yourself, your teacher notices in you as well. If you have conducted yourself in a way you’re proud of in  your teacher’s class, their letter will accurately reflect this. Though you may not be able to exert the degree of control over the contents of your letters of recommendation that you might wish, you can for the most part trust in your recommender’s ability to present a flattering and accurate image of you to admissions committees. They too are invested in your success and happiness.


However, it should be cautioned that over the years we have heard of recommenders who subscribe to a policy of intense honesty in their letters — even if their words may present an unflattering picture of you to admissions committees. For this reason, it’s important to select recommenders extremely carefully. Though it may be difficult to get a sense of the type of letters a teacher writes, especially because students technically aren’t supposed to look at the letters written for them, try speaking to upperclassmen or graduate friends to see if they have any insight into which teachers write great letters and which should be avoided.


Recommendation letters are certainly important insofar as they offer admissions committees an outsider’s perspective of you, and are one of the few portions of your application not totally under your control or discretion. Though you may feel anxious about not being able to create or even view beforehand a key component of your application, have faith in your recommenders. If you’re trying to decide whom to ask for your letters of recommendation, fill out our free consultation form below; our applications mentorship programs are designed to help you navigate the admissions process – including interviews, essays, recommendation letters, and more – with as little grief as possible.


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Anamaria Lopez
Managing Editor

Short Bio
Anamaria is an Economics major at Columbia University who's passionate about sharing her knowledge of admissions with students facing the applications process. When she's not writing for the CollegeVine blog, she's studying Russian literature and testing the limits of how much coffee one single person can consume in a day.