What a Good Recommendation Letter Should Look Like

Although the UCs do not require or accept recommendation letters for general admission (if you are applying for a specialized program at a UC that requires a supplemental application, then recommendation letters may be needed; if you are still confused about whether Berkeley is accepting recommendation letters, see this explanation), those of you who are applying to private colleges and scholarships will most likely need recommendation letters.

In my many years of reviewing scholarship applications, I have to say that majority of the recommendation letters add ZERO value to the application packet. Most teachers and counselors, overwhelmed by the number of requests they get, send out boilerplate letters that state things like “[insert your name here] is bright and works hard,” and “participates in a variety of extracurricular activities.” In this kind of letters, teachers and counselors fail to give any pertinent information that demonstrates WHY they think you are bright, HOW they derived their perception of your work ethic, or WHAT capacity they serve in speaking about your extracurricular participation.

What do you do? Ask your teachers and counselors to 1) give specific examples of your achievements (for every praise, there should be an example; if you are intelligent, thoughtful, and motivated, then they should give an example for each); 2) only speak to the what they know (for example, your English teacher may speak to your ability to balance classroom/homework assignments against your numerous tennis tournaments but not, unless she is also the tennis coach, how you do in your tennis tournaments); and 3) always use a positive voice (avoid things like “I would not hesitate to recommend” and use, instead, something like “I wholeheartedly recommend” or “I highly recommend”).

Sometimes you have to take some responsibilities in the recommendation letter writing process, filling out lengthy questionnaires so the teachers and counselors can reference specific information in their recommendation letters. If that is the case, make sure you provide detailed explanation of your accomplishments (Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How) and highlight the ones that pertain to a particular teacher or counselor when necessary (point out the relevant accomplishments for a specific teacher or counselor to use in his or her recommendation letter).

Still not sure what a good recommendation letter should have? Below is a sample letter that I wrote for one of my UCSD College Counseling Specialized Certificate courses (I suppose me writing a letter for a fictional student, as a fictional counselor, was easier; but I have certainly seen letters like this when I was reviewing scholarship applications), along with feedback from an admission officer at a highly ranked private college in Southern California cough UCLA rival school cough (as arranged by the course instructor). Notice how the accomplishments and hardships of the student are described through examples of personal interactions, rather than a laundry list of meaningless descriptors.

Dear Admissions Officer:

I am writing to recommend Z for admission consideration to X College. I have known Z for over three years, beginning on his first day of school, when he made a vivid impression on me. He was one of the first students in line outside my door to get his schedule changed. Z knew precisely which classes he wanted and spoke to the appropriate teachers about getting into those classes before showing up to my office. I was surprised by his unusual ability to articulate his needs and, unlike his fellow students, his foresight to get approval from the teachers to be transferred into their classes.

After that first meeting, Z made regular visits to my office to keep me informed of his academic progress, his extracurricular pursuits, and his personal life. I always looked forward to Z dropping by as he often shared stories of his achievements, such as turning a near-disaster group science project around and winning second place at the Y County Fair, as well as what he termed his “epic fails,” like the track and field tryout that went horribly wrong (fortunately no one was injured), all with good humor. In our large public school, I rarely talk with students in-depth other than in a few scheduled mandatory meetings. However, Z made great effort to establish and maintain a relationship with me, often waiting outside my office while I finished phone calls or meetings, just to spend five minutes to catch up.

Aside from taking the most challenging courses offered at our school, Z pushed himself further academically by enrolling in evening and summer community college courses. I was amazed by Z’s ability to persuade the professors to allow him to add their classes. This was especially impressive in light of the recent state budget cuts and the fact that high school students have the lowest priority for class enrollment. Z once told me that his secret was to continue attending classes until enough students dropped out, thus allowing him to add the classes as late as two-thirds of the way through the term. I thought the strategy demanded too much of his time, but his tenacity seemed to have paid off as he is now enrolled in his sixteenth community college course, the greatest number of community college courses taken by a single student at our high school to date (I verified this with the two other counselors at our high school).

Z is a consummate overachiever, especially given his personal circumstances. Through our conversations, Z told me that he lives only with his mother who had been unemployed for over 4 years. In addition to his impressive grades and extracurricular activities, Z also does freelance work to bring in extra income for his family. I was initially puzzled by Z’s choice of programming language courses at the community college, since he had always expressed an interest in the humanities. However, I later found out that he took what he learned in those classes and applied the knowledge as a freelance programmer in order to earn money to pay the household bills.

Z is a mature, sensible, and articulate young man, and I firmly believe he will succeed in life no matter what he does or where he goes. The strong humanities program at X College is a great fit for Z’s academic interest and in return, Z will bring with him a great work ethic, good common sense, and a wonderful sense of humor to the student body at X College. I wholeheartedly recommend Z for admission to X College. I hope you will see Z as I see him, a great asset to your school community and a good friend.

Sincerely,
Wei-Li Sun

Feedback from College Admission Officer

This is an extremely well written and informative letter. After reading it, I actually feel like I know the student better and would want to form my own working relationship with the student. The background context about his family situation and his community college work provides great additional information that would not come across as in depth by just looking at the application. Great job!


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