Anatomy of a Good School Recommendation Letter

A good school recommendation letter can be the difference between a top-tier and an alternative school. But what makes a good school recommendation letter? The best measure is if the recommendation letter helps the student get into the school of their choice. Unfortunately it is impossible to know exactly if a given letter will be the difference in getting into a school or not. However, there are certain conventions expected in a letter that should not be violated. In addition the letter's content and the letter writer distinguishes an average versus a good school recommendation letter.

A school recommendation letter has three sections: the introduction, the body and the closing statement. In the introduction, the writer introduces themselves and how they know the applicant. The writer may also relate why they are a good judge of students. The body explains why the writer thinks that the applicant is a good fit for the program. A good school recommendation letter will have memorable anecdotes and narrative in the body instead of just a list of positive qualities. The standard closing statement will summarize the information in the body and will often tell the reader how to contact the writer.

Distinguishing a good school recommendation letter

Almost all recommendation writers will follow the standard form. good school recommendation letterBut a good recommendation letter writer can be distinguished by a few points. The first is that there should be no grammar or spelling errors in the letter. It is true that the applicant cannot control what is written, but they choose the writer. If the writer does not spend enough time to proofread a letter than it says a lot about how much they care about the applicant. In addition, a good letter will have relevant information about the applicant. If the writer does not put specific information or stories about the student it is likely they do not know the applicant that well. For example, if the recommendation letter is filled with just statements on how the student is good at this or pleasant they are or how hard they work without examples it is very hard to distinguish the one student from another. The reader is also looking for exaggerations or even untrue statements. While it generally acceptable to omit unpleasant details in a good school recommendation letter, outright lies reflect badly on the student as well as the writer.

Recommendation letter writer

Very often who writes the school recommendation letter can say almost much as the letter. A student who is able to get a school recommendation letter from a distinguished person has set themselves a part from their competitors. A good school recommendation letter writer is in tune with the person and the school. For example, a recommendation letter from the family physician can lend weight to medical school application. An even more powerful recommendation would be a letter from the chief of surgery at a hospital for a student who wants to go to a medical school to be a surgeon. The fame of the writer can also make any letter stand out. For example, a letter from a renowned scientist or politician will be read more carefully by most application committees. If the writer is an alumni of the school or is known personally to the application committee, their recommendation tends to carry more weight. All of this is not to say that a good school recommendation letter is determined solely by who wrote it. A good school recommendation letter is a balance between the content and the writer.

Bad school recommendation letters

Though it maybe impossible to tell if a good school recommendation letter helped the applicantion, some letters definitely hurt an applicant's chances. Examples include:

  • One applicant sent in letter of recommendation from their mother.
  • One letter of recommendation spelled the applicant's name wrong throughout the document.
  • One recommendation letter writer used an off-color joke that offended some of the application committee members.
  • In one school recommendation letter, the writer had left the words "student's name" instead of the student's name making it obvious it was a form letter.