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Writing a Recommendation Letter for a Prestigious College: Example + Analysis from a Harvard University Recommendation (Share it With Your Recommender)

Also in: 简中 (Simplified Chinese) 繁中 (Traditional Chinese)

The quality of the recommendation letter can determine whether a student is accepted by the school.

Recommendation letter, interview, and counselor’s report are the only three ways universities can get to know students through a third party and understand what the student behind the cold application form look like. However, not every university has an interview. In addition, the school counselor cannot truly know every student, so it is less important for the student. However, almost every college requires at least one letter of recommendation, and it is an extremely important piece of information for colleges to evaluate students.

Students typically know that they need to ask a teacher to write a recommendation letter, but it is not easy to write a recommendation letter. This is especially true for students from high schools in Asia, where teachers do not even know how to write a recommendation letter.

As a result, although the teacher may like a student a lot, his or her recommendation letter written is usually unpersuasive because of its incorrect content. It fails to touch the admission officer’s heart, resulting in the student’s rejection. This is a extremely common.

Now is almost the time for students to ask the teacher to write a recommendation letter. At this time, Ivy-Way’s college consultant will help students ask for a recommendation letter from the teacher. After students understand how to write a recommendation letter, they can inform and explain to the teacher how to write an effective letter. You can also forward this blog post to your teacher, as this post will be very helpful for your teacher to write a persuasive recommendation letter for you!


Who is the best person to write a recommendation for a student?

A popular myth that you may hear from those third-party counselors is that the higher the recommender’s status or position, the better the letter. Therefore, these students end up using connections to find a university professor or the CEO of a large company to write a recommendation letter. However, the recommender’s status or position is actually relatively the least important. The most important aspect about the recommendation letter is its content, which shows the depth of the recommender’s knowledge of the student and the interaction with the student.

The order of importance of university recommendation letters is as follows:

This means that if a student is not familiar with Barack Obama, but he gets a recommendation letter from Obama (say, through parents or a third-party college counseling company), even if Obama’s “ex-president of the United States” status is the best ever, the benefit of this recommendation letter will be far less than a recommendation letter written by the English teacher who taught the student for two years and liked the student a lot!

Alex’s recommendation letters were written “only” by the teachers in his high school: one from his math team coach and AP Calculus teacher who knew Alex for three and a half years since he joined the math team in the second semester of ninth grade, and one from his honors English teacher during 11th grade. In addition, the recommendation letters from Ivy-Way’s admissions consultants almost all exclusively came from their high school teachers.  These examples prove the unpopular statement ” recommendation letters from high school teachers are excellent at helping students get admitted to prestigious schools.” This is always the case, even for this admissions cycle.

In contrast, we would like students to think how many classmates or upperclassmen around them have received recommendation letters from famous school professors, top CEOs, or celebrities, and whether they are all admitted to famous schools. By comparing these students with Ivy-Way’s college counselors, we can clearly see that the content of the recommendation letter is far more important than the recommenders’ statuses or positions.


The correct format of the recommendation letter

In the first part of the recommendation letter, the teacher will assess the following aspects to the university:

1. Score students’ personality and abilities

The teacher needs to give the student a score for different categories, such as Including Academic achievement, intellectual promise, Maturity, and Motivation, compared with other students in the same year:

2. The duration and context for knowing the student

For example: “I’ve known him for a week through a summer program,” “I taught him honors English last year,” or “I was his basketball coach for 2 years,”

3. Use a few adjectives to describe the student

4. Recommendation letter

The letter should include 2-3 subjective characteristics, such as the student’s learning ability, aptitude, sense of responsibility, superficial ability, sense of humor, social skills, leadership, and so on. Each paragraph should focus on a subjective characteristic, and the teacher should use examples, anecdotes, or data to support this characteristic.


The structure of a recommendation letter

The structure of the entire letter and the content for each paragraph are as follows. This may be very helpful for teachers who are unclear as to how to properly format write recommendation letters:

Paragraph #1: Introduction

  • How do you know this student
  • The duration for knowing the student and the frequency of interaction
  • 2-3 personalities that the recommendation letter mainly wants to mention (such as his learning ability, qualifications, sense of responsibility, domain potential, sense of humor, social skills, or leadership)

Paragraph #2: Body Paragraph #1

  • Restate the first personality
  • Give examples or describe the interaction(s) (from observation, experience, working together, or overhearing)
  • Explain the relevance of and connection between this example and the characteristic (How does this example prove this characteristic?)
  • The importance and implication of this characteristic (Why is this characteristic important? How can it be applied to the university environment, future work, or future life?)

Paragraph #3: Body Paragraph #2

  • Restate the second personality
  • Give examples or describe the interaction(s) (from observation, experience, working together, or overhearing)
  • Explain the relevance of and connection between this example and the characteristic (How does this example prove this characteristic?)
  • The importance and implication of this characteristic (Why is this characteristic important? How can it be applied to the university environment, future work, or future life?)

Paragraph #4: Body Paragraph #3

  • Restate the third personality
  • Give examples or describe the interaction(s) (from observation, experience, working together, or overhearing)
  • Explain the relevance of and connection between this example and the characteristic (How does this example prove this characteristic?)
  • The importance and implication of this characteristic (Why is this characteristic important? How can it be applied to the university environment, future work, or future life?)

Paragraph 5: Conclusion

  • Reiterate the points mention before
  • Reiterate the teacher’s degree of intention to recommend the student to this university

Example of an excellent recommendation letter

We’d like to share the following letter of recommendation from an AP English teacher, which helped this student get accepted by Harvard University. This example should also help students and parents begin to develop the ability to judge the quality of a recommendation letter. In the next section, we will then analyze the content of different paragraphs in detail.

To Whom It May Concern:

It is with great pleasure that I recommend Allen Cheng for admission to your school. In my three years of working with him, he has demonstrated the qualities necessary for high success in the demanding academic atmosphere of a high caliber university as well as the social skills needed to be successful in college.

Academically, he is an extremely strong student, earning an A both semesters in AP Junior English (a feat few accomplish), and A’s throughout his high school career. He consistently exhibits dedication and vigor in all that he approaches. He is a member of the National Honor Society, the California Scholarship Federation, and an integral part of the Jisan Research Institute. He is a vital member of all that he is a part of.

Outside of the classroom, Allen’s passion is for research. He has a brilliant and lightning quick mind; he is a fantastic scientist, one with great charisma and leadership skills. Though he is a year younger than the rest of his class, he is heads and shoulders above them. He has been more than ready for all that a major university has to offer for quite some time.

Perhaps one of Allen’s most outstanding characteristics is his independence of thought and his willingness to express those thoughts. In other situations where students-would never speak their minds, he showed no hesitation to voice questions, thoughts, and ideas. He was always an active participant in class discussions, his animated character and controversial positions often being the spark that set off the entire class to an impassioned and heated period of arguing, often with him at the focal point of one side or another.

His other qualities are of equal magnitude – his leadership skills came to forefront in group projects where he took charge, assuming the majority of the work and responsibility, ensuring that everything was completed in a timely manner and to his extremely high standards. He also has the ability to take the quiet and shy student and actively engage him or her, transforming that student into an active member of the class. I went out of my way to partner him with other students who needed this kind of attention and encouragement.

Another quality that sets him apart from other student leaders is his strength of conviction. He will argue on any topic that has touched a nerve. He breathes with raw, unbridled passion. It is a rare gift in a person of any age; in someone just 16, it is breathtaking. He is honest, never stooping to cheat; he is entertaining, relying on wit, knowledge, and intelligence to persuade. Friends rely on him; he is attentive to their true needs. Teachers enjoy him in their classes.

I recommend Allen completely, with no hesitation. He will make his mark and be known.

Judith Swift


Analysis of a good recommendation letter

The length of this recommendation letter exceeds the recommendation letter template we gave before. There are five body paragraphs, but This recommendation letter is good not because of its length but its content. We will analyze the beginning and end of this recommendation letter, as well as several body paragraphs.

Paragraph #1: Introduction

In the second sentence, the teacher mentioned “In my three years of working with him.” The longer the acquaintance with the student, the more in-depth understanding the teacher has about the student, and the higher the credibility of this letter.

At the end of the paragraph, the teacher clearly mentioned several aspects that this recommendation letter will mention in the body paragraphs: “qualities necessary for high success in the demanding academic atmosphere of a high caliber university” and “social skills needed to be successful in college .” It is crucial to clearly mention these qualities at the beginning, as it lays out a clear outline of the letter to the admissions officers.

Paragraph #2: Body Paragraph #1

This paragraph is actually the weakest paragraph of all the body paragraphs. Although the recommendation letter mentions some of Allen’s academic achievements, such as A’s in his grades (“earning an A both semesters in AP Junior English… and A’s throughout his high school career”) and participation in the National Honor Society, California Scholarship Federation, and Jisan Research Institute. These are great achievements, but these achievements have already appear in the transcripts and the Activities and Awards List in Allen’s application form. It is a waste of space to mention them here again.

With that said, when the teacher mentions Allen’s A grades, he mentioned that the student’s A in the AP Junior English course is “a feat few accomplish.” This new information can inform the admission officers that the teacher has a very high standard in giving grades. Therefore, this information still adds value and significance to his A.

Paragraph #4: Body Paragraph #3

This is a paragraph that adds a lot of value to the student. The teacher mentioned that the most special subjective trait of students is his “independence of thought and his willingness to express those thoughts.” After mentioning his personalities, the teacher went on to give examples of the student in class: “In other situations where students-would never speak their minds, he showed no hesitation to voice questions, thoughts, and ideas. He was always an active participant in class discussions, his animated character and controversial positions often being the spark that set off the entire class to an impassioned and heated period of arguing, often with him at the focal point of one side or another.” Mentioning these examples can help the admission commission officer “see and feel” what a student Allen was like. This paragraph is very convincing!

Paragraph #5: Body Paragraph 4

The teacher went on to describe Allen’s next personality: leadership ability. The teacher mentioned ways in which Allen demonstrated his leadership skills in the class, such as the following sentences:

“his leadership skills came to forefront in group projects where he took charge, assuming the majority of the work and responsibility, ensuring that everything was completed in a timely manner and to his extremely high standards. He also has the ability to take the quiet and shy student and actively engage him or her, transforming that student into an active member of the class.”

In addition, the teacher also mentioned the importance of this characteristic from the student: because this student has the ability to lead other students and communicate with classmates, the teacher will especially arrange students who are more troubling or need more encouragement in the same group as Allen, so that Allen can help the teacher during the class.

In order to give this example, the teacher must have extensive interactions with the student for a period of time, seeing and trusting his leadership and communication skills before assigning such a crucial role to Allen to lead the students in the class. Such anecdotes are extremely convincing in recommendation letters; after reading this example, every professor would love to have Allen be in their class, because Allen’s presence in the class will not only make the entire class more enthusiastic but also make the class easier for the teacher to teach. Paragraphs like this can certainly persuade the admission officers to say yes to this student!

Paragraph #7: Conclusion

Conclusion is used to reiterate previous points, so it is relatively the least important paragraph. The teacher only wrote two simple sentences to restate the his willingness to strongly recommend Allen to the school: “I recommend Allen completely, with no hesitation” and “He will make his mark and be known.”


Recommendation letter Q&A

Q: What are “subjective qualities”?

Ans:Those that cannot be “digitized” are considered subjective characteristic, such as sense of responsibility, attitude, learning ability, potential, field performance, eloquence, writing ability, charm, humor, etc.

Q: How to write examples?

Ans: It’s best to use a storytelling method to prove the characteristics of a case. For example, “I have only finished teaching a key point, and students can draw inferences about it or answer questions I asked in the class almost every time. Just last week, I was impressed. We are studying the Civil War. He is the first student who can immediately connect the Civil War with the American Declaration of Independence he learned before (story case), which proves his ability to learn (characteristic)”

Cases can also be used to prove the characteristics by numbers, such as “He takes 100 in each exam (numbers case), which proves that he has a strong learning ability (characteristic)”. However, although the number is convincing, because the number has already appeared in the transcript or activities list in the application form. The admission committee can already know from the “English score 98 points” that the student should get nearly 100 points for each test, or from the “first place in the 100m sprint” to know that the student’s physical ability is very good. The same information in the recommendation letter will be a bit repetitive, so it will be weaker than the way of telling the story.

Q: Where should the scores or data be written?

Ans: Some data can appear in the “case” section to prove the characteristics, but the resume in the application form already has scores and data. Therefore, the focus of the recommendation letter is not to mention data again, but to describe emotions, stories, or experiences, and to give students “temperature” so that the school can feel what a student is like.


Khan Academy’s recommendation letter introduction video

In this video, admission commission officer from universities such as Yale University and Georgetown University and college counselors from Phillips Academy Andover (one of the best private high schools in the United States) share what are the elements of a good (and bad) recommendation letter. We share with you as a summary of this article, and you can also see where the key points they said appear in our analysis article!

Also in: 简中 (Simplified Chinese) 繁中 (Traditional Chinese)

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