What Should a Letter of Recommendation Include?

College gives you opportunities to pursue passions and offers a chance at careers that provide financial stability for the future. There is a large amount of planning that takes place in preparation for college: you must choose the right major and degree plan, research future salaries and employment opportunities to make sure you will have job options. The issue of paying for college must also be considered, including making decisions about applying for scholarships, loans, or grants.

When you finally decide to start the college admissions process, you will find there are many tasks to mark off the list. One task that will always be required is obtaining letters of recommendation. These letters can make a difference in whether students are accepted or rejected from their choice schools.

What is a Letter of Recommendation?

A college recommendation letter is written by someone who knows you and can highlight individual attributes that would make you worthy of a place at your college of choice. Some colleges require more letter than others, so be prepared to collect more than one as you fill out applications.

  • A short explanation about how the letter writer knows the student
  • An assessment of the student’s skills, abilities, successes, and growth
  • An explanation of why the student should be chosen for admission to this college

The more personal and specific a letter is, the better. The college recommendation letter will be one of the first ways a college admissions board gets to know the most personal side of who you are. It should leave a lasting, positive impression.​

Who Do I Ask for a Letter of Recommendation?

Letters of recommendation should be written by someone who knows you well and is in a position of leadership. A friend or family member should not write a recommendation letter for you. Teachers, coaches, bosses, or administrators are all good choices, and if you have performed volunteer work, asking the volunteer coordinator would be a smart idea.

The key is to find a person who knows you well and can attest to your growth. It’s fine if the person you ask has seen you struggle through the years. In fact, that might even be preferred. The more personal experiences the letter writer has been through with the student, the more personal and unique the letter of recommendation they write will be.

It’s also never a bad idea to consider your major. If you’re going into music, having a letter from a band or choir director would be a good idea. Someone who can talk about your character is the most important part, but it never hurts if they can also relay stories of your expertise in your desired field.

How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation

It’s important to understand that writing a recommendation letter is a big responsibility and a major time commitment. Andrew Simmons, a writer, and teacher in California, wrote a piece about college recommendation letters and confessed that he is asked to write more than a dozen during college admissions season.

With this in mind, it’s important to approach potential letter writers with the right attitude. A few courteous ways to do that are:

  •  Try to find a time when the two of you can talk without interruptions.
  • Explain to them why you feel they would be a good choice to write a letter for you.
  •  Give them a list of your accomplishments that they can mention in the letter, also known as a brag list.
  • Do NOT wait until the last minute to ask for a letter of recommendation. College admissions packets must be turned in by certain deadlines, so ask your letter writers well before the letters need to be submitted.
  • Provide any special instructions the college requires for letters of recommendation.

How Can You Help the People Writing Your Letters of Recommendation?

Create an Effective Brag List

Brag lists are tricky. As Simmons mentions in his article for The Atlantic, the accomplishments usually listed on a brag list have probably already been mentioned on the college application. There’s nothing informative about receiving a letter that only confirms what the admissions board already knows.

Plus, brag lists don’t always make the letter of recommendation more unique. Many phrases written about students are too vague to have to mean. Calling someone “nice,” “persistent”, or “intelligent” does not make them stand out from other applicants.

To create an effective brag list that will inspire the letter writer to paint a picture as opposed to just write a form letter, you need to include the right information. To help jog your letter writer’s memory, include these prompts on your brag list and ask them to think about each one as they are sitting down to write your recommendation letter:

  •  A time they saw you struggle and overcome
  • A time they saw you come up with an innovative solution to a problem
  • A time they saw you move through a process that caused you to experience growth
  • A time you went against the crowd to do the right thing
  • A time you failed and how your reaction revealed your character

You may provide these experiences for them, such as “please consider what you learned about me from that time I failed the first three weeks of chemistry but came back with a strong B by the end of the six weeks reporting period”. You can also just give them the ideas of what to think about and let them reminisce about experiences. Just make sure you give them more than a list of accomplishments that you’ve already listed somewhere else.

What’s important is not that the letter writer describes you as a generic superhuman who has never made a mistake. No one on a college admissions board is stupid enough to believe that anyway. The goal is to help the admissions board see you as a real, live person with something to offer their school, and having someone explain how you’ve dealt with complicated situations is a great way to do that.​