How to Pen an Exceptional College Recommendation Letter

In any part of life, words matter, but words matter more in academics. This is why, when a student asks you to write a college letter of recommendation, it should have a particular focus and be well-worded.

While writing these letters can seem overwhelming since they do matter in the application process, a college recommendation letter is yet another way to serve your students well. At some schools, the recommendation letter ranks higher in importance than extracurricular activities or class rank.

A note of caution—don’t accept the request from a student that you don’t feel strongly about. This can actually be a disservice to the student. Instead, politely decline and you can simply say, “I do not feel I would be the best person to write you a recommendation.”  Then, go on if you can to suggest someone who might be a better choice.

Features of a great letter:

  1. Include performance an impact in the classroom, with specific examples of an outstanding mind.
  2. Choose words that describe the student and back them up with clear examples.
  3. Include strong examples of the student’s work within the letter.
  4. Choose 2-3 personal strengths of the student to highlight.
  5. Use powerful and specific language.
  6. Speak about the goals the student has for the future.

An excellent college recommendation letter should also have a specific structure. Here are some guidelines:

Introduction with a “hook”: Start with an unusual fact about the student.

  • Use the student’s entire name in the first sentence.
  • State how you know the student.
  • Use the name of the school and the program of interest to the student.

Body paragraph 1

  • Discuss how the student participates in the classroom.
  • Describe how the student interacts with others and adults.
  • Use a specific example of the student’s work ethic in an assignment.
  • Speak about the student’s integrity and ethics.

Body Paragraph 2

  • Mention any unique characteristics of the student. For example, he/she likes anime, or drawing, or British fiction. Everyone should not be the same!
  • Mention any leadership examples.
  • Describe personal qualities such as self-motivated, quick learner, sense of humor.


  • Using the student’s full name, give him/her your full recommendation.
  • Emphasize the qualities you like most about the student.
  • Finish with a sentence that expresses emotion about the student.

There are many excellent examples to follow online that can help you structure a recommendation letter that will stand out for your student. According to William Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard, “recommendations from secondary school teachers and counselors are extremely important at Harvard and at many other colleges, particularly those with selective admissions processes.”

It is wise to have someone proofread the letter for clarity. Be sure to put the letter on school letterhead and sign either physically or digitally. Ensure that you have used clear, strong language. It should be clear to anyone reading the letter that you actually like this student and are recommending with confidence.

An excellent recommendation can help the admissions committee see beyond the test scores and extracurricular activities to the student as a person.

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