Networking and Career Advice

How to Write a Recommendation Letter for a Student

Natasha Serafimovska

Career Coach, Professional Resume Writer, Freelance Writer

When a student applies for their first job or for their next academic degree, they don’t have much experience to showcase their skills and personal qualities. Hiring managers and admissions officers, therefore, often look at recommendation letters as a way to go beyond the student’s GPA and learn more about the student’s skills and personal qualities. 

That said, not all of your students qualify for a recommendation letter from you. If a student asks you for a recommendation letter, but you haven’t worked with them before, or you find their performance unsatisfactory, then writing a recommendation letter for them won’t work. Instead, opt for students whom you know and trust would perform well in whatever position they’re applying for next. 

With that out of the way, you might wonder how to write a recommendation letter for a student. How do you structure the letter, and what do you include in it? Here we cover everything you need to know about the structure and contents of a recommendation letter so that you can rest assured that you give your students the best possible chance of success.

What Is a Letter of Recommendation?

businessman or professor handing over a yellow envelop with a letter of recommendation

A letter of recommendation is a formal letter illustrating a person’s skill set, personal qualities, and relevant achievements. A student may use a letter of recommendation from their teacher or mentor to further support their application for a new job or university admission.

The purpose of the letter will dictate how to position the letter and what skills and achievements you should highlight.

Why Are Recommendation Letters Important?

The 2019 State of College Admission survey by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) found that 14.2% of colleges view teacher recommendations as necessary. Meanwhile, 40.2% deem them to be of moderate importance. The numbers are slightly higher for counselor recommendations, with 15.1% and 40.4%, accordingly. 

These are ranked much higher than the student’s extracurricular activities, work experience, and even interview performance. So, your recommendation letter can significantly impact whether or not your student gets the program acceptance or the job they’re applying for.

Similarly, your recommendation letter can be crucial when your student is considered for a job. These are mainly used by large corporates and companies which conduct detailed due diligence to ensure their employees are of good character.

Recommendation Letter VS Reference Letter

If you think that a recommendation letter and a reference letter are the same things, rest assured you’re not alone. Many people use these two terms interchangeably. Though they’re similar, there are some slight differences between the two.

Recommendation letters, in general, are written for a specific academic program or job application. This means that the writer may need to tweak the letter if the student applies for a few different things. When you’re asked for a reference letter, though, you should offer a more general account of their character, both as a student and as a person.

Who You Should and Shouldn’t Write a Letter of Recommendation For

As a teacher or someone in a position of authority, you may get many requests to write recommendation letters. However, it’s impossible to know how to write a recommendation letter for a student you haven’t had a personal interaction with. It’s even more difficult if you can’t envision the student becoming a rising star or living up to their potential.

When deciding who you write a letter for, think of the following:

  • Have they attended one of your courses;
  • Have you worked with them on other research or extracurricular projects;
  • Do you feel comfortable vouching for their character and quality as a student;
  • Have you acted as their mentor throughout their education;
  • Do you have enough experience with them to share specific examples of their positive attributes;

If you’ve answered yes to either one of these questions, then you should feel comfortable writing their recommendation letter. If no, then they’d be better served elsewhere.

How to Write a Letter of Recommendation for a Student

Letter of recommendation on an orange piece of paper

Before you set out on writing your recommendation letter, make sure you have all the information you need at hand:

The Job or Academic Program the Student is Applying For

We’re sure that you can sing praises for your student any time, but make sure your letter is tailored to the requirements of the program or job they’re applying for. If they’re looking for someone with leadership skills or technical know-how, make sure these qualities feature in your letter.

The Student’s Academic History and/or Work Resume

One of the best tips on how to write a recommendation letter for a student is to get additional information. Maybe you’ve worked with them, and you know a little bit about their personality, but you’re going to need more to write a high-quality letter.

If you don’t have the full picture of their academic or professional background, it’s good to ask for these well in advance so that you can paint a coherent picture in your letter. It is even helpful if you meet with your student beforehand. In the meeting, you can get a good idea of what attributes, qualities, and experiences are most important to emphasize.

Specific Examples of Their Performance

Your letter will be much stronger if you can tie each quality with a specific example you’ve witnessed (this helps demonstrate the student’s skills or good character). Talk to your student if it’s been some time since you last worked together and you’ve forgotten some of these things. They might have better recollection and remind you of everything they’ve done in your class or under your supervision.

The Best Format to Write a Recommendation Letter for a Student 

In order to make life easier for everyone, keep your letter concise and well-structured. Here are some of the things you can include:

Introduce Yourself

Use the very first paragraph to position your role and how you’ve come to know the student. Make sure you include your title and institutional affiliation as this will give your letter credibility. 

Highlight Your Relationship with The Student

Next, dive right into why you support your student’s application for the specific job or university program they’re applying for. Highlight the key qualities you believe they’d bring to the table if they’re admitted.

Include Examples

Proceed with specific examples from your experience with the student which demonstrate their skills and qualities as a person. 

Closing Paragraphs

Close off the letter by re-stating your endorsement and emphasizing your confidence that they’d be a great addition to their academic program/company culture.

Sign Off

Use a professional greeting and your full name to sign off the letter. Make sure you include details of how you can be contacted should they have any questions.

Best Practices When It Comes to Writing Recommendation Letters

Professor typing a letter of recommendation for a student

When writing your letter, it can be tempting to write about your favorite moments with that particular student. But, if these don’t fit with what the student is applying for, your letter won’t have the desired effect. Instead, here are some best practices to think about when drafting your letter.

Tailor It to the Intended Purpose

Always ensure that the examples and qualities you highlight fit with the letter’s purpose. For instance, if the student is applying for a job, you should discuss their work ethic and other job-specific skills. In turn, if they’re looking for a scholarship, you’d probably want to highlight their academic excellence and potential as a leader. 

Keep It Positive and Concise

You want your letter to help the student as much as possible, so keep it positive and concise. Avoid talking too much about yourself or using fluff that doesn’t directly allude to the student’s identity as a person and professional. Focus on their good qualities and highlight them throughout the letter. 

Keep It Specific And Use Plenty Of Examples

When highlighting a character trait or a skill, back it up by sharing a specific example. This will add more weight to the letter and make it sound more convincing. For instance, if your student is a natural leader, offer examples that showcase this quality. Do other students easily follow their ideas? Have they inspired others to take a specific action?

Recommendation Letters Can Be Used for Various Purposes

As we’ve already mentioned, a letter of recommendation can be used in many different contexts. Their intended purpose will dictate how and what you say in them.

Here are some of the most common use cases for recommendation letters.

Recommendation Letter for Scholarships

When a scholarship awarding body selects its cohort, they’re looking for candidates who promise to excel in whichever field they choose to study. This might mean they have outstanding math skills, incredible leadership skills, or a unique creative genius. 

When writing a letter of recommendation for a scholarship application, highlight all the great ways your student stands out from their peers. Are they especially aware of the political ecosystem and participate in a debate club? Do they always come first in sports competitions? All of this can be valuable information to the awarding committee.

RECOMMENDED CONTENT: 10 Strong Scholarship Recommendation Letter Examples

Recommendation Letter for College

Similar to a letter for a scholarship, college admissions look for students who will perform well and make the college a great place to study. This doesn’t necessarily mean they’d be looking for extraordinary talent (though it won’t hurt). Still, they’d want to see that the student is responsible, accountable, and active in the student community. 

RECOMMENDED CONTENT: 4 Amazing Recommendation Letter Samples for Students

Graduate School Recommendation Letter

Graduate studies have higher expectations regarding the student’s academic aptitude and analytical skills. When writing a recommendation letter for graduate studies, highlight any research projects the student took part in or any specific skillset the student would need to complete the studies. 

Below is an example of a recommendation letter for graduate school. 

Academic Recommendation Letter Sample

Dear Mr. McKinsey,

My name is Jennifer Anderson and I’m senior lecturer of political economy at Georgetown Univeristy. I’ve had the pleasure of teaching Liz Joyce in the last two years and I can wholeheartedly recommend her for the Masters in Political Science program at Duke University. 

Liz has been a stellar student to have as she always asked poignant and relevant questions and demonstrated genuine interest in the topics we were exploring. At the very beginning, she impressed me with her knowledge of different economic theories and how these have shaped our current socio-economic system. She always went above and beyond in her studies and always delivered clear and thoroughly researched papers. Her essay on “Coalitions and Political Accountability” delved deep into the accountability deficit in Western coalition governments and how these shape popular opinions and political movements. 

Liz is not only a naturally inquisitive person, but she’s also committed to using her knowledge for the better good. I’m the Chair of the Women Have Voices society which Liz joined last year and has since contributed massively in fundraising, launching campaigns and speaking against wage inequality and gender bias in the workplace. 

Since your graduate program explores various political models and how these shape the labor market, I believe that Liz Joyce would be an incredible asset to your cohort. I have no doubt that she will excel in your program and enrich the overall learning experience with her existing knowledge and passion for politics.


Jennifer Anderson

Senior Lecturer

Georgetown University

(123) 456-789

Final Thoughts

When we work with students, our impact on their lives doesn’t stop in the classroom. Giving a student a recommendation letter can shape their academic future and subsequent career success. 

That said, ensure you write recommendation letters only for students you know well and trust in their potential. Keep the letter concise, clear, and tailored to its intended use. Then, watch your student soar.

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