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Recommendation Letters: the Great vs. the Not-So-Good

Letters of recommendation can play a key role in the college admissions process. Many colleges, especially private universities, view their applicants holistically. They want to know who you are as a “whole person,” rather than focusing on only your academics or test scores. That’s why your college essays and your recommendation letters are important to college admissions offices. They share who you are, what your values are, and where you aspire to be.

 

In this article, we will share five sample letters: some stellar and some not so great. The first letter is from a Biology teacher, the second from an AP Chemistry teacher, the third from a mentor, the fourth from an AP Computer Science teacher, and the fifth from an AP English teacher. After each letter, we will also provide insights into what makes an amazing letter of recommendation and what pitfalls you should avoid.

 

Sample Recommendation Letter #1: Brian

Dear Office of Undergraduate Admissions,

I first met Brian in his freshman year of high school. He was a student in my ninth-grade biology class. From the beginning, he contributed to class discussions and always had a positive approach to new material. During our unit on plants, he did unassigned research on his own time away from school and approached me during open office hours to discuss his findings. I was always impressed with his initiative and enthusiasm for the subject.

Since that time, I have transitioned to teaching AP Biology, and I was fortune to have Brian in my class again during his junior year. He consistently excelled with labs and achieved consistently high marks throughout the year. He brings energy to every discussion. That spring, he began to tutor other students who needed support as well. His willingness to help his peers was admirable, especially during the busiest stretch of the year when he was preparing for multiple AP exams. Currently, he is helping me as a teaching assistant during his senior year, while maintaining a full course schedule and applying to college.

Last summer, Brian volunteered at Good Samaritan Hospital in San Jose. During his time there, he was able to shadow doctors and nurses and interact with patients. He regularly communicated questions to those with more experience and has already expressed interest in continuing to volunteer his time next summer before he heads off to college. His desire for knowledge and the care he shows to other people leaves no doubt that he has a wonderful future ahead, not only as a biology major in college, but also as a young man who will make valuable contributions to society.

Please reach out to me at rcarson@insight.education should you need more information.

Sincerely,
Mrs. Carson

Insights to this letter of recommendation

This is a great letter of recommendation from Mrs. Carson. From this recommendation letter, we can tell that she knows Brian well and has high opinions of him. Mrs. Carson shares specific anecdotes of Brian, showing that he made a powerful impression. She doesn’t describe Brian as “a good student;” she shares examples of his unassigned research and his willingness to help others.

You could argue that Mrs. Carson remembers Brian because he was her student for two years and later her teaching assistant. You wouldn’t be wrong. It’s important to whom you ask for recommendation letters. Your interactions and relationships with the recommenders are far more important than your grades in the class. From her letter of recommendation, you can tell Brian exhausted his resources to learn everything he could about biology. He asked Mrs. Carson for help in his independent research in ninth grade. He actively participated in her AP Biology class discussions. He devoted his time to become her teaching assistant. While Brian did all these activities to pursue his interest in biology, no doubt he made a strong impression for Mrs. Carson to take her time and energy to craft together a glowing recommendation letter.

 

It’s important to whom you ask for a recommendation letter. Your interactions and relationships with the recommenders are far more important than your grades in the class.

 

What does this recommendation letter tell the admissions office?

private colleges may require recommendation letters as part of the admissions process

The college admissions officers could have already seen Brian’s courses and his AP Biology test score. They may even know Brian is a strong student with an interest in biology. Ms. Carson’s recommendation letter confirms Brian’s enthusiasm for biology. In addition to his academic interests and grades, Ms. Carson shared that Brian loves to help others, even if he must squeeze time out of his busy schedule.

From her letter of recommendation, Ms. Carson paints a picture of an overachiever who is not only intellectually curious but also compassionate. Her belief that Brian will “make valuable contributions to society” really helps to add weight to his college application.

 

Sample Recommendation Letter #2: Catherine

Dear Admissions Committee,

I am writing this letter of recommendation in support of Catherine’s application for undergraduate admission in the chemistry program at Insight University.

I was Catherine’s teacher for AP Chemistry last year. She is a strong honors student, who received excellent grades on all classwork and exams. Catherine submits her work on time and gets along well with her classmates. Aside from getting an A+ in my class, Catherine also received a 5 on her AP Chemistry exam at the end of the year.

She is involved in a number of school clubs and summer research programs pertaining to Chemistry. Catherine’s dedication to her interest in the subject matter has impressed me, and I am confident that she will continue to demonstrate the same commitment in college. I look forward to seeing her future pursuit of her interests at your institution and offer my endorsement of her.

Sincerely,
Mr. Pauling

 

Insights to this letter of recommendation

Compared this letter to the first letter, the length is shorter, and the language is vague. We can tell that Catherine did really well in AP Chemistry, but her grade and AP scores can be easily found on her application. Mr. Pauling did not offer any specifics about Catherine’s clubs and summer research programs, which shows his lack of personal knowledge of Catherine.

However, this could be prevented had Catherine provided a resume when she asked for the letter of recommendation. School teachers work with hundreds of students per year. They may remember anecdotes of your behavior in their classes, but teachers will have a hard time recalling which specific summer research program you participated in. Thus, it’s a good idea to provide them with relevant details when you ask for the recommendation letters.

a resume or a list of your achievements can help your teachers with the letter of recommendation

 

It could be helpful for your recommender if you prepare a resume or a short list of your achievements.

 

 

What does this recommendation letter tell the college admissions office?

This letter is unlikely to add any positive value to Catherine’s application. Compared with her application, this recommendation letter arguably offers less information. We don’t even know the name of the school clubs Catherine was in.

A good letter of recommendation provides additional facets or dimensions of “you” in the college application. From this letter, we know Catherine was a good student. College admissions offices need more than that; they want to know your character traits and what your values are. It is one thing to learn your traits from your personal statement, but it speaks volumes when those same traits are observable by others around you as well.

 

Sample Recommendation Letter #3: Kyle

To whom it may concern,

I am writing this letter in support of Kyle. I have been Kyle’s tennis coach for the last two years at Insight High School and I look forward to this season, when he will be one of three co-captains on the varsity team.

Kyle only joined the tennis team during his sophomore year, and as such he had to catch up with peers who had been playing longer. However, Kyle led by example from the beginning. He was always on time and prepared for practice. Additionally, he was always willing to take constructive feedback. Despite a meticulous approach to developing his skills and being hard on himself after the occasional mistake, he has always remained approachable. He has excellent communication skills and has never shied away from a challenge.

Now a stronger player than he has ever been, teammates turn to his for support. This is especially true of younger teammates who want to challenge themselves by competing with those more advanced. As a mentor, Kyle has really hit his stride and showcased exceptional leadership ability. In fact, he even set up a private meeting with a teammate who was considering leaving the team after a poor performance. Kyle inspired his teammate and motivated her to continue. The only reason I know about this meeting is because the younger student who needed support told me how great Kyle has been in helping her through a tough time.

People gravitate to Kyle, and I think that will be evident as he continues to compete at the next level.

If you have further questions, you may contact me at (xxx) xxx-xxxx.

Regards,
Coach Roger

 

Insights to this recommendation letter

Unlike the previous three examples, this one is from a mentor. Depending on the college’s admissions requirement, you may need to find letters of recommendation outside of the classroom. You want to pick someone with whom you have a good rapport, work closely with, and have known for some time. For example, a mentor from your year-long volunteering experience or a manager from your part-time job.

Always double-check the college admissions requirement on letter of recommendation before you make your selection. Some high schools also have rules on who/when you can ask for recommendation letters, too. 

In this case, Coach Roger was Kyle’s tennis team coach for more than two years. In two simple examples, Coach Roger explained in detail what sets Kyle apart. Kyle is hardworking, disciplined, and motivating. We may not know what Kyle’s grades looked like or how challenging his academic curriculum was, but that doesn’t make Kyle any less of an appealing candidate. We admire his courage in the face of challenging times and his thoughtfulness when helping his teammates.

 

What does this recommendation letter tell the college admissions officers?

From Coach Roger’s letter, we can see who Kyle is beyond his grades and GPA. Kyle has the qualities that allow him to succeed in school, and more importantly, those qualities will help him excel in life. These qualities, also known as non-cognitive factors, are essential in holistic admissions. They are related to motivation, integrity, temperament, attitude, and interpersonal skills. College admissions officers seek out students who possess these non-cognitive factors because these students are likely to continue to thrive and grow.

 

Sample Recommendation Letter #4: Aaron

To whom it concerns,

This letter is for Aaron. I met him in August when he joined my AP Computer Science class. He previously took Java and has begun to demonstrate more interest in the field. Despite not having a long relationship with Aaron, he has been a good student this year and typically earns As and Bs on tests. He wants to get involved in more CS-related activities and recently took part in his first hackathon.

I told Aaron how competitive CS is, and we have discussed related fields such as data science. His goal is to work at a tech startup in the Bay Area. I think that with hard work and more focus on his chosen major, he will find success as an undergraduate student.

Aaron is a good kid with a bright future ahead of him.

Best,
Mrs. Turring

 

Insights to this letter of recommendation

building a genuine relationship is the best way to a strong recommendation letterMrs. Turring’s description of Aaron is generic. It lacks passion. The specific details she was able to share are information already listed in Aaron’s application, such as his grades and activities. In this case, Aaron could help himself by sharing why he wanted to learn Java or what his hackathon experience was. Strike up small talk with your teachers, even simple things like asking about their day and sharing something meaningful to you. This is not just about getting a good letter of recommendation; you’re learning to build an important skill, which is fostering relationships with people from different backgrounds and age groups.

Read more: Tips for Strong Letters of Recommendation

 

What does this recommendation letter tell the admissions office?

This recommendation letter tells colleges that Aaron is interested in CS, which is a very competitive major. If he is interested in a career path pertaining to computer science, we would expect more interactions with his AP Computer Science teacher. Actually, this letter causes a slight concern because Mrs. Turring thought Aaron needs “more focus on his chosen major.”

 

Sample Letter of Recommendation #5: Edie

Dear Admissions Office,

I proudly write on behalf of Edie and her ambition to attend your university. I am fortunate to have Edie as a student in our school’s AP English Language course, a two-year class tailored for the most creative and rhetorically gifted students on our campus. Though amongst the elite, Edie represents the best of the students I am honored to teach based on her intelligence, creativity, broad scope of talents and contributions to our school and community, and leadership. However, atop her catalog of attributes, Edie is one of the most kind, respectful, and outgoing students I have ever had in my twenty-seven years of teaching. I hope my following words of praise improve Edie’s opportunity for admittance.

Last year, Edie instantly proved her willingness to contribute to the classroom. Though many times exhausted from her litany of extracurricular demands or her taxing AP schedule, Edie arrived to class smiling and beyond any definition of simply participating in class. Her genuine positive energy cascaded throughout the classroom each day making everyone in the room smile, including me. Edie also shattered the expectations I had on every assignment whether academic or creative. To link with Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, Edie creatively illustrated her own A Streetcar Named Life, using images and quotes encapsulating life’s challenges and inspirations. Her command of language equally impressed on both AP timed writings and other rhetorical tasks. Below is a brief excerpt from Edie’s own apocalyptic tale imitating the fragmented style of Cormac McCarthy after reading The Road.

Papa felt weak. He felt it overcome him like the shadows during Lights Out, mother says. So papa left. into the dark. Mother says papa left us fighting the dark alone. I don’t think we should fight the dark. The dark is my best friend the only friend I have ever known. The dark lets me feel, lets me feel weak.

People gravitate to Kyle, and I think that will be evident as he continues to compete at the next level.

Yet, Edie’s most impressive effort was her year-long independent study project. For the TAG curriculum, students are encouraged to choose a passion of theirs to explore, create, and practice beyond the traditional bounds of a research paper. Edie chose human experiences. Of her eight installments, Edie proved the elasticity of her mind and heart. She wrote random notes of kindness to strangers, friends, family, and even our entire class. She paid it forward in our community, wrote beautiful, humanistic poetry, conquered a few of her fears, and provided insight on many of life’s most inspirational quotes. I particularly liked how one of her favorite quotes is also mine by Bruce Lee. Do not pray for an easy life; pray for the strength to endure a difficult one.

Without reciting Edie’s entire resume, her accomplishments and leadership are many. With all these achievements, you might expect an overzealous, arrogant student to walk through your doors. Edie is not. she smiles more than anyone and exudes the utmost respect for everyone in the room. It is refreshing to be around such a talented and accomplished student who also has such a great sense of humor and modesty. I offer Edie my highest recommendation as she is a student for even adults to emulate. She works so hard on every assignment that I almost feel guilty assigning it. Almost.

There are many more examples and anecdotes of Edie’s efforts. If what I stated above served not as acknowledgment enough, I hope my own daughter becomes the same type of student and person Edie represents. I know she will make an excellent contribution to your campus and lives. She has mine. If there is anything additional I can offer to help Edie’s opportunity, please do not hesitate to request.

With Sincerity,
Edward Insight

 

Insights to this letter of recommendation

While Mr. Edward Insight focused his entire letter on Edie’s performance in his class, this letter is significantly different from Catherine’s recommendation letter. Mr. Insight phrased his letter of recommendation carefully to deliver his respect for Edie. From the first paragraph, we already learn that he thought of Edie as the best of the best because of her academic performance and her characteristics. Mr. Insight listed many anecdotes to support his view of Edie, and he even shared a piece of her work for the college admissions office to experience her creative writing.

From this recommendation letter, you can almost picture what Edie looks like, and she sounds like a very charming, open-minded, and compassionate person. That’s what makes this so powerful. A well-written letter of recommendation makes the student come to life for the college admissions officers.

 

What does this recommendation letter tell the college admissions office?

This recommendation letter shouts, “Pick her!” It makes us want to meet Edie and get to know her more. This is the kind of letter you want to have: specific, passionate, and well-crafted. Mr. Insight hopes for the best for Edie, and he wants to help her achieve her dream. This is not a letter that you can write in five minutes or half an hour. He spent the time choosing his words and examples to make a strong impression on the college admissions officers.

 

Final Thoughts

Recommendation letters can make or break a college admissions decision. It’s important whom you ask and how you ask. At Insight, our counselors encourage and help students build relationships with their teachers. Feeling a bit overwhelmed? Don’t stress! We are here to help. Schedule your 1-hour personalized college planning session with an Insight Counselor today!

 

Best of Luck,

Team Insight

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