How to Write a Great Letter of Recommendation

on January 10, 2017

Letters of recommendation can push a college application to the top of the pile, but not all letters carry the same weight. Well-written letters that are specific and storied can help students stand out in the admissions process, according the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) admissions office.


“Because of our highly competitive applicant pool, letters of recommendation hold substantial weight in our admissions decisions,” says MIT, which receives more than 20,000 applications a year. “A well-written letter for an outstanding applicant can highlight impressive characteristics beyond his/her own self-advocacy.”


A strong opening and closing are essential to crafting a strong letter, MIT says. Glowing praise isn’t enough, either – statements should be backed up by examples of a student’s abilities.


And although some instructors will delight in singing a student’s praises, those comments should be limited to a page, according to Hamilton College. The college cautions “extra paragraphs won’t make the unexceptional sound exceptional.”


Hamilton also has a few other best practices for letters:

  • Tell things about a student that cannot be found in his or her application
  • Provide perspective about the rigor of courses and challenges a student faced and overcame
  • If there are nuances to the curriculum, such as a lack of AP courses, make note of it

MIT echoes Hamilton’s advice and builds upon it by saying that letters should go beyond grades and academic performance. A truly good letter doesn’t just highlight achievements – it captures a student’s character.


Detailing intellectual capacity, as well as emotional maturity, can help admissions officers decide whether a student is a good fit. Depth is key – if a letter is positive but offers few specifics, it won’t pack the same punch as more detailed letters.


Insight into anything that affects student performance – such as trouble at home – also is helpful. It can show that a candidate is able to shine even in tough circumstances.


“We appreciate anything that gives us insight and perspective into a student's performance and the environment,” MIT admission says.


“Comments about problems that a student has experienced will help us understand the context in which they have accomplished whatever they have achieved. The extent to which they have dealt with these problems is useful to know as well.”


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