How to Write a Letter of Recommendation

ASO Staff Writers
Updated February 21, 2024
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As college admissions panels and hiring committees sift through hundreds of applications, how will yours stand out? Enter the letter of recommendation. The task of self-evaluation required on a personal essay helps those who decide your fate get a sense of who you think you are, but the recommendation letter helps them gather valuable insights about how others perceive you. This guide takes a look at some of the most frequently asked questions surrounding these important documents, highlights common mistakes and offers valuable resources.

What is a Letter of Recommendation?

Letters of recommendation are required components for many college applications. They help admissions panels get a more nuanced sense of who the student is, how they relate to others and what values drive them on an everyday basis. They’re also a very commonly requested form of validation for employment, as prospective hirers want to understand how a possible new employee works with others and if they have the dedication, focus and problem-solving skills to be successful in the real world.

A quick note about the differences between letters of recommendation and letters of reference, as students may see both of these terms and be unsure which one they need. While a letter of reference is typically requested by a specific person/college/company and tailored to the information they seek, a letter or reference tends to be a broader, introductory-style letter that touts the great qualities of a person generally. Letters of reference aren’t as common as letters of recommendation, and students typically don’t need them.

The following section takes a look at some of the most common instances of letters of recommendation being requested and why they are important.

For new graduates: getting recommendation letters for LinkedIn

The business networking platform LinkedIn has a feature that allows users (including those taking advantage of the free version) to ask for endorsements from other professionals they have studied under, interned with or worked for. Once an endorsement request is accepted, the written recommendation shows up on the profile of the endorsee and serves as a public acknowledgment of their accomplishments. Students who use LinkedIn to connect with prospective employers or internship sites can really benefit from this service, as it provides easy access to recruiters looking to get a better sense of how former supervisors and professors feel about their achievements and potential.

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How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation

Before asking for a letter of recommendation, students should understand exactly what they need from their references to make their applications stand out. Students who start the process early and do their homework have the advantage. Gathering letters of recommendation may be unlike any high school assignment, but teachers, guidance counselors, coaches and other referees are usually more than willing to help learners get into college. Some of the more common questions students have about the process are reviewed below.

Who to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation

Finding the right person to write your letter of recommendation can have a significant impact in how an admissions panel or hiring committee views your strengths, so it’s important that you spend time thinking about how each person can address what you bring to the table in compelling ways.

Students should also pay attention to the type of reference letters each school wants and find suitable references. “If you plan to major in science, try to ask a science teacher to write a letter,” suggests Goodnow. “Some colleges allow optional letters from coaches, clergy, and others, but make sure these people can share detailed stories about you based on real interaction and insight into your best features.” It’s also important to find people who can speak to your strengths without bias. “A parent or family member isn’t a good person to ask,” notes Goodnow.

Some of the most common letter writers for students include:

The Best Letters of Recommendation

When requesting a letter of recommendation from an academic or professional source, remember that all are not created equally. Just because you meet the recommendation letter requirements on paper doesn’t mean that the letter best represents your accomplishments and potential. According to Going Ivy CEO Erin Goodnow, the one thing that makes a few letters of recommendation stand out from the thousands she has read is the use of details.

“A letter of recommendation will do absolutely nothing to help you – that is, if it’s totally generic,” she notes. “But then, if you can be described by someone else with enthusiasm and real stories that show your best characteristics, a letter of recommendation can help you stand out from the crowd of college or job applicants.”

Other components that separate a good letter of recommendation from a great one include:

Letter of Recommendation Resources

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