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How to write a winning Letter of Recommendation?

By Rajdeep Guha 

A letter of recommendation is very important when it comes to applying to universities for a Bachelor’s, Master’s or a Ph.D. In fact, some Ivy League universities such as Harvard and Yale emphasize more on the letters of recommendation that the student submits than on his/her SAT/GRE scores. Letters of recommendations or LORs help the members of the Admissions Committee to understand the student’s motivations and sense of value. The Committee gets to know the student more closely and, in the process, they are able to distinguish one candidate from the other. 

A strong recommendation letter should be explaining the following pointers:

  1. Who the student is beyond his/her grades, test scores and lists of activities?
  2. How long has the referee known the student and in what capacity?
  3. How much and in what ways the student likes to learn?
  4. Which subject areas the student excels in?
  5. Leadership positions held or special projects led
  6. Any contribution the student has made to the school or community
  7. What kind of character the student has
  8. The student’s strengths and weaknesses
  9. The student’s achievements in activities, hobbies, sports or at work
  10. If the student has accomplished something that is not easily explained in the other parts of the application
  11. Special circumstances that should be taken into account such as challenges faced, the student’s or community’s socio-economic background or limited course offerings at her/his school attended.

Five Tips to Teachers for writing Recommendation Letters

The following tips are for teachers/professors who are often approached by students to write letters of recommendation for them.

TIP 1: Know Your Objectives.

Before you start writing, be sure you are clear on the type of information the colleges and scholarship organizations are seeking in your letter. For example:

  • Is the selection criteria described in the application materials? (Be sure you explain how the student meets the criteria.)
  • Is there a specific question you need to answer?
  • Are there special circumstances about the student’s socio-economic background that you would like the selection committee to know? Also, don’t forget to mention the special qualities of the student such as writing skills, oratorical acumen etc. which you would make him/her suitable for the intended study programme. It would be lovely, if you could mention a few events where the student performed so that your claims regarding the students are substantiated.

TIP 2: Create a 60 Second Outline.

Every letter should include the following:

  • Name of student: _________________________________________________
  • Letter is in support of the student’s application for: __________________________


  • Academic accomplishment or point to convey: _____________________________

Example: ______________________________________________________________

  • Extracurricular accomplishment or point to convey: ______________________

Example: ______________________________________________________________

  • Personal accomplishment or point to convey: ___________________________

Example: ______________________________________________________________

  • Anything else? ___________________________________________________

This format is flexible. For one student, you may have one academic, one extracurricular, and one personal accomplishment to cover. For another, you may want to address two academic points and one personal one. Usually, for a Bachelor’s degree programme, a student’s extracurricular activities are given importance by the Admissions Committee. However, for a Master’s degree or a Ph.D. student, the referee should focus more on the academic achievements of the student rather than on his/her sporting skills.

TIP 3: Write a convincing letter of recommendation.

  • Be credible, don’t exaggerate. Selection committees value honesty. Selection Committees are trained to locate instances where you have magnified the student’s achievements. Needless to say, the student’s candidature will be affected in such a scenario.
  • Go deep rather than broad. It’s better to use one compelling story that illustrates a rare quality in a student than a list of 20 great facets of an “all round” student.
  • Try to highlight one or two special attributes of the student. The college or scholarship selection committee will already have a list of the student’s activities. Writing to illustrate how the student made a difference in an activity or as a member of a club can be helpful and, hence, a student’s application can score over others.
  • Give vivid examples to describe the student’s qualities. Over-used descriptors like “team player,” “natural leader” or “friendly” don’t offer much to readers without further explanation. Try to illustrate special traits of your student with specific examples.

To illustrate that a student is “an effective mediator”, you might add:

“She has displayed the ability to suggest constructive and doable solutions when disagreements came up between other players in the team. For example, when new members joined the team and disagreed with the senior players about xyz, the student negotiated and….”

To illustrate a student’s leadership skills, you might share a story such as:

“Last year, he organized an afforestation drive in the region. Thanks to his efforts, his team led by the student effectively brought a change in the region. The place is now replete with greenery. Through this effort, he showed his ability to organize, motivate others and produce results.”

TIP 4: Know Which Traits to Highlight.

Traits worth highlighting (choose one or two):

  • Evidence of intellectual ability
  • Response to assignments
  • Classroom interaction
  • Character
  • Integrity
  • Perseverance
  • Judgment
  • Motivation
  • Inquiring attitude
  • Maturity
  • Ability to accept constructive criticism
  • Creativity
  • Confidence
  • Relationships with classmates and teachers
  • Tenaciousness
  • Compassion for others
  • Decisiveness
  • In-class discussion
  • Written work
  • Communication skills
  • Ability to share ideas
  • Ability to perform under pressure
  • Reliability with responsibilities

Traits which are not as important as the aforementioned attributes:

  • Nice
  • Likeable
  • Popular
  • Sweet
  • Kind
  • Pleasant

TIP 5: Avoid Common Errors.

  • Do not use the same letter format for multiple students. Sure, it saves time, but Admission Committee members are trained to spot generic letters of recommendation.
  • Inconsistency in the application materials, for example, the student’s intended major in the application form should match that on the recommendation letter.
  • Writing more than one page. Resist the temptation to exceed one page.  The selection committee most likely would only read the first page anyway.
  • Never feel guilty about saying no to a student if you simply have too many recommendation letters to write or if you don’t know the student well enough. Or, if you are pressed for time, don’t be afraid to ask the students to provide more information or background to make the writing go more quickly.

You can ask students who request letters of recommendation to go through the following checklist and update you with the latest information by sending the relevant documents. The checklist consists of the following documents:

Recommendation Letter Requirements for Students

  • Completed copy of the Student Background Information Form (given in the next part). This will help me highlight experiences or achievements you’ve had outside of school (at work or as a volunteer, etc.).
  • Copy of the application you want my letter to support. This will help me see exactly what you are applying for, and how you are presenting yourself to the selection committee.
  • Copy of your transcript. This can help me describe your areas of expertise.
  • Copy of your personal essay. An essay which describes your future goals can help me understand what you are working to achieve.

The following Student Background Information Form can be given to the student by the referee. Once the student submits the filled in form, the referee can have a clear idea about the student’s goals/skills/qualities which make him/her suitable for the study programme.

Student Background Information Form

Student name: ___________________________________________________________

Phone number: __________________________________________________________

E mail: ___________________________________________________________


Graduation year: ____________________________

GPA: ______________________________

Academic honors or awards: __________________________________________

Any special courses you’ve taken over the summer or at another campus? _________________


Employer: _____________________________

Your job title: ____________________________

Date started and ended: __________________________

Hours per week: _________________

Responsibilities: ________________________________________________________

Skills learnt:____________________________________________________


Sports you participate in: __________________________________________

Date started and ended: ___________________________

Hours per week: ________________

Achievements you are proud of: _______________________________________

Clubs you participate in: __________________________________________________

Date started and ended: ___________________________

Hours per week: ________________

Achievements you are proud of: ____________________________________________

Hobbies or talents: ___________________________________________________

Date started and ended: ___________________________

Hours per week: ________________

Achievements you are proud of: ____________________________________________

Leadership positions (student government, club officer, etc): _____________________

Date started and ended: ___________________________

Hours per week: ________________

Achievements you are proud of: _________________________________________

Community and/or volunteer experience: ___________________________________

Date started and ended: ___________________________

Hours per week: ________________

Achievements you are proud of: _________________

Key points to remember:

A letter of recommendation follows a business-letter format. We will use the block letter format which means there are no indentions.

Here is an explanation of what goes in the body of a letter of recommendation. The body should be five to seven paragraphs.

The first paragraph of the body should include the following:

  • an indication that this is a letter of recommendation for you
  • an explanation for how this person knows you (examples: taught you, was your counselor or coach or club sponsor)
  • general comments about your talents, abilities and achievements.

The next paragraphs provide specific evidence of your talents, abilities and achievements and covers these areas:

  • Academic achievements: class rank, academic achievements, how you compare to others, academic strengths (problem-solving ability, thinking skills, speaking and writing abilities, etc.)
  • Performance in a classroom or other setting: specific evidence of your skills and talents in action such as projects you completed or tasks you undertook
  • Personal characteristics: at least five personality traits (examples: responsible. dependable, mature, motivated, enthusiastic, efficient, independent, able to work well with others) with explanations that illustrate how you demonstrated these traits to the person who is recommending you
  • Extracurricular activities: clubs, organizations, sports, leadership roles, jobs

The concluding paragraph of the body should include the following:

  • a summarizing sentence that states the writer’s general thoughts about you
  • an indication that the writer feels strongly and positively about you
  • a statement that shows the writer believes you will be successful in the program for which you are applying.


After completing an MA in English from the University of Calcutta, India, Rajdeep Guha went to the University of Otago, New Zealand to pursue an MA (Thesis) in English. He submitted his thesis on his chosen area of specialization and then, returned to India in 2013. Since then, he has been working as IELTS and TOEFL trainer in New Delhi, India. His e-mail id:


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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