How to Write a College Recommendation Letter: Guidance and Samples

Elevate your students’ college applications—Unearth effective strategies to write a compelling college recommendation letter.

How to Write a College Recommendation Letter

The lights are dimmed, your coffee cup is steaming beside your laptop, and you’re faced with the daunting task of writing a college recommendation letter for a student who trusts you with their future.

While this task may prove to be challenging, it holds significance beyond just being another item on your to-do list. It’s an opportunity to help shape the trajectory of a young life.

But how do you ensure your words truly capture the essence of your student’s potential?

Let’s explore how letters impact college admissions and how small details can improve them.


Understanding the Purpose of Recommendation Letters

College admissions can seem like a labyrinth, especially in the United States, where applications are evaluated holistically. It’s your student’s voice amidst a crowd of applications, each brimming with high scores, extracurricular feats, and ambitious essays.

Although academic proficiency and extracurricular commitment are important, they may not fully represent the student’s true identity.

This is where your recommendation letter comes in. Its purpose is to provide insight into the student’s character — their values, passion, strengths, and goals — to offer the admissions officers a fuller, more human perspective. 

Doing so adds another dimension to the application, which could tip the scales in your student’s favor.

Who Should Write a College Recommendation Letter

If you were asked to write a recommendation letter for a student, you might be a teacher, school counselor, coach, or mentor. What matters most is that you know the student’s capabilities and development. Your personal experiences with the student will add credibility and depth to the letter, making it more impressive.

But what if you’re someone who doesn’t know the student that well? It’s not an uncommon situation, and it certainly isn’t a dead end.

Seek a meeting with the student, delve into their school records, or solicit views from their other teachers or mentors. Your task, challenging yet rewarding, is to bring their potential to life through your words.

Even if you didn’t know them well to begin with, your effort could open the door to their future.

Before You Write: Ethical Considerations and Managing Requests

The request for a recommendation letter is not only a nod to your reputation but also an added responsibility. You might find yourself swamped with multiple requests or in a position where you’re hesitant to vouch for a particular student.

When it comes to handling multiple requests, the key is organization and prioritization. Gauge the time you have at hand and the depth of insight you can provide for each student. It’s perfectly acceptable to respectfully decline if you’re overloaded or unable to provide a detailed, meaningful recommendation.

In cases where you don’t feel comfortable recommending a student, honesty is the best policy.

Politely let the student know that another person may be better suited to provide a more positive endorsement.

Remember, your credibility and the student’s future are at stake, so fairness and integrity should guide your decision.

Crafting a College Recommendation Letter: Structure and Essential Elements

A well-crafted recommendation letter can illuminate a student’s unique persona and potential, spotlighting their readiness for higher education.

To ensure your letter delivers its intended impact, it’s important to understand its structure and the key components that make it compelling.

The letter should start with a formal greeting. If the recipient’s name is known, use it. Otherwise, a simple “To Whom It May Concern” will suffice.

This is where you set the stage. Introduce yourself, your professional role, and your relationship with the student. Specify the duration and context in which you’ve known them.

The core of your letter lies in its body. Here, your task is twofold:

  • Highlighting Achievements: Discuss the student’s accomplishments, focusing on instances that demonstrated their skills, dedication, and growth. These could range from academic achievements, leadership roles, and community involvement to personal projects. Concrete examples will make your claims credible and impactful.
  • Personal Qualities and Potential: Beyond accomplishments delve into the student’s character. Shed light on their strengths, values, passions, and how these attributes equip them to excel in their chosen field. This is also the place to tactfully address any weaknesses or challenges the student has faced, emphasizing their capacity for growth and resilience.

If you know the specific college or program the student is applying to, tailor your content accordingly. Discuss why you believe the student would thrive and contribute to that particular environment.

Reinforce your endorsement in the concluding paragraph. Reiterate the student’s potential and your confidence in their ability to succeed in college.

Close the letter with a formal sign-off, your full name, title, and contact information. This adds a professional touch and provides an avenue for further communication if necessary.

Writing a recommendation letter is a delicate balance between sincerity and advocacy. Your words, carefully chosen and thoughtfully structured, can be the key that opens new doors of opportunity for your student.

So take a deep breath, gather your thoughts, and let your belief in your student guide your pen.

Polishing Your Letter: Reviewing and Revising

Like a diamond that only reveals its brilliance after meticulous polishing, your recommendation letter, too, requires careful review and revision to shine. Your goal is to make it error-free, clear, and compelling. 

Start by checking for spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors. These seemingly minor flaws can undermine the credibility of your letter and distract from its key messages.

Next, ensure the letter is clear. Have you provided concrete examples to support your claims about the student’s capabilities? Have you clearly articulated their strengths, their growth, and their potential? If you’ve mentioned any weaknesses, have you done so in a way that underscores their learning and resilience?

Finally, read the letter with an empathetic lens. Does it paint an authentic, compelling picture of the student? Does it make you, the reader, feel invested in the student’s future? If the answer is yes, then you have a polished gem in your hands.

If you’re a student seeking a recommendation letter, you also have a crucial role. Discover who to ask and how to request a standout letter of recommendation in our comprehensive guide. Take the first step now!

Examples of Effective Recommendation Letters

Let’s analyze a few examples to better understand the art of writing compelling recommendation letters.

Recommendation Letter Example #1

Dear Admissions Committee,

I am writing to recommend my student, Jane Doe, for your undergraduate program. As her AP English Literature teacher for the past two years at Springfield High School, I have had the pleasure of witnessing her intellectual growth and commitment to her studies.

Jane has consistently demonstrated a deep understanding and passion for literature. She has been a top performer in her class, earning an A+ in her junior and senior years. Her insightful analyses and thoughtful contributions to class discussions have greatly enriched our classroom environment.

Beyond her academic achievements, Jane has also been an active participant in our school’s drama club, serving as the lead in our annual school play for the past two years. Her ability to balance her academic responsibilities with her extracurricular commitments is commendable.

Jane’s personal qualities are just as impressive as her academic and extracurricular achievements. She is a natural leader, often taking the initiative in group projects and leading her peers with grace and respect. Her kindness and empathy are evident in her interactions with her classmates, and she is always willing to lend a helping hand to those in need.

In conclusion, I wholeheartedly recommend Jane for your undergraduate program. I am confident she will bring her intellectual curiosity, leadership skills, and compassionate nature to your campus. Please feel free to contact me at if you have any further questions.


John Smith 

AP English Literature Teacher 

Springfield High School

This letter is effective because it provides a comprehensive view of Sarah's abilities, achievements, and personal qualities. It uses specific examples to illustrate these points, making the recommendation more credible and compelling.

Recommendation Letter Example #2

I am delighted to recommend my student, James Lee, for your undergraduate program. As James’s Calculus teacher at Oakwood High School, I have had the opportunity to observe his exceptional mathematical abilities and dedication to his studies.

James has consistently excelled in his mathematics classes, maintaining an A average throughout high school. His ability to grasp complex mathematical concepts and apply them to real-world problems is remarkable.

In addition to his academic prowess, James has also been an active member of our school’s robotics club. As the club’s president, he has led his team to victory in several regional and national competitions, demonstrating his leadership skills and technical expertise.

James’s perseverance and resilience are among his most admirable qualities. He is not one to shy away from challenges; instead, he faces them head-on and works tirelessly until he finds a solution. His positive attitude and determination are infectious, inspiring his peers to strive for excellence.

In conclusion, I strongly endorse James for your undergraduate program. I am confident he will significantly contribute to your campus community and excel in his academic pursuits. Please do not hesitate to contact me at if you need additional information.

Mary Johnson
Calculus Teacher
Oakwood High School

This letter effectively provides a well-rounded view of James's abilities, achievements, and personal qualities. It uses specific examples to illustrate these points, making the recommendation more credible and compelling.


Most colleges require two to three recommendation letters.

However, the requirements can vary depending on the institution, so it’s always best to check the specific guidelines of the colleges you’re interested in.

Recommendation letters should be written by individuals who know the student well in an academic, professional, or personal capacity. This could include teachers, school counselors, coaches, mentors, or employers.

Generally, it is not recommended for family members to write a recommendation letter unless they have a professional relationship with the student (like being their teacher or coach).

Colleges prefer letters from non-relatives who can provide an unbiased evaluation.

A recommendation letter should include the referee’s relationship with the student, an evaluation of the student’s skills and qualities, specific examples or anecdotes highlighting these qualities, and a closing statement endorsing the student.

Check out our Crafting a College Recommendation Letter: Structure and Essential Elements section for more detailed information.

If a weakness is mentioned, it should be framed constructively, focusing on how the student has worked to overcome it, demonstrating their resilience and capacity for growth.

Remember, your role in crafting a recommendation letter is vital. Through your unique insights, you can showcase a student’s strengths and potential, significantly influencing their college admissions journey.


In the complex maze of college admissions, a well-written recommendation letter serves as a guiding light, spotlighting a student’s unique strengths and potential. This narrative, crafted by you, the referee, can illuminate qualities grades and test scores alone cannot captu

Your words, born from your unique relationship with the student, can humanize their application, helping them stand out among thousands. As you begin to write, remember you’re not just penning a letter but forging a key that could open many opportunities for your student.

Your time and effort in crafting this testament to your faith in them can become one of the most significant gifts you give your student. So, seize this chance to bring their story to life, and let your narrative help them shine in their journey to higher education.

Editorial Disclaimer

The College Compass is reader-supported and committed to maintaining complete editorial independence. All views expressed are solely ours and are not influenced by any external party. We may include affiliate links in the article, which helps us earn a small commission to support our work. We always have a link to the source for any data or information we include. Learn more about our editorial practices.

College Admissions Insights & Advice

Scroll to Top