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What Should Be in a College Recommendation Letter?

Updated: Dec 13, 2021

As college admissions consultants, we are often asked what makes for an effective letter of recommendation. Compelling recommendations can be the difference between a successful and unsuccessful college application, so how can you make sure you get good ones?

This is probably one of the most mysterious and intimidating aspects of the college application process. The best strategy is to take a focused, assertive, and ethical approach to make sure you obtain the most positive and persuasive letters from the most authoritative recommenders.

Easier said than done, right? Well, let's make it easier so you can get it done

How Long Should A Recommendation Letter Be?

First, the basics: what is the right length, or range of lengths, for a letter of recommendation?

A good rule of thumb is one single-spaced page using a standard font like Arial or Times New Roman and an 11 or 12 point font size. In terms of word count, this works out to approximately 400-500 words.

Keep in mind that admissions officers will be reading thousands of letters, so brevity can be a benefit if your recommender is not omitting important details.

The only reason to go beyond one page would be a truly astonishing accomplishment that requires a lengthier explanation. Why were you elected to the National Academy of Sciences at age 15? An achievement like this would be worth a few extra words.

Most recommenders who are high school teachers or counselors should already know the appropriate length, but do not assume that they all will. Make sure to politely mention the one-page length when requesting your recommendations.

Can You Fake Letters of Recommendation?

Short answer: absolutely not!

Although, that is not to say it does not happen. In the competitive environment for admission to elite colleges, some desperate students are willing to take a chance and write their own fake letters of recommendation if they are not able to get real ones or are just too lazy to ask for them.

More likely than not, forged letters will be noticed by a vigilant admissions officer, for the obvious reason that colleges place a high priority on weeding out dishonest and unethical applicants. If you had a prestigious reputation to uphold, wouldn't you?

Here just a few of the ways you can and will be caught if you submit a fake letter of recommendation:

Writing Style:

If, like the average high school student, you have no experience or qualifications for writing letters of recommendation, it will show. Your fake letter will be read by someone who reads these letters all day long for a living. They'll know very, very quickly that something is not right about it.

Bad Grammar and Spelling:

Someone who writes a fake letter, whether they are the applicant themselves or someone they recruit for the job, is—by definition—someone who cuts corners, is badly informed, and makes poor choices (possibly all three!). This type of person is also likely to make serious spelling and grammatical errors that will be an immediate red flag to anyone in academia.

Researching the Recommender:

  • Who is the person who is supposed to have written this letter?

  • Are they real?

  • Do they actually work at the school, business, or other organization they claim to be affiliated with?

Thanks to the Internet, these are relatively easy questions to answer. If the recommender does not exist, the mystery of the suspicious letter is solved. Or if they do exist, they can be contacted. This leads us to...

Contacting the Recommender:

Once an admissions officer flags a letter of recommendation as a probable fake, they are more likely to reach out and attempt to contact the person who is supposed to have written it. When they do, a few simple questions can confirm that they never wrote it, or if they did write it while posing as someone else, that they are not the person they claim to be.

If you are caught having forged a letter of recommendation, you will obviously be denied admission or have your admission and any degrees rescinded if your deception is discovered after being admitted.

Beyond that, you could face even more severe consequences. A student who submitted fake recommendations and transcripts to multiple prestigious universities including Cornell, Carnegie Mellon, and Purdue was arrested, successfully prosecuted for loan fraud for the financial aid she had received, and sentenced to five years of probation...narrowly avoiding a prison term.

Do not be that student. Get real letters of recommendation.
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What Is The Purpose Of A Letter Of Recommendation?

Each letter of recommendation is an opportunity to convey not just the depth and breadth of your academic preparation, but also your curiosity, creativity, ingenuity, and charisma. In short, it should be a window into your intellectual brilliance and winning personality. The less generic your recommender can make it, the better!

Imagine you are an admissions officer at an elite university who is bored and questioning their choice of career after reading thousands of recommendation letters that all sound alike. Believe us, that person exists! Your goal should be to make your recommendation a highlight of their day amid those piles of mediocre letters.

To make that happen, a lot depends on your relationship with your recommender. Do they see you as a unique individual who stands out from your classmates, or as just another student taking tests and turning in homework?

If your recommender barely knows who you are as a person, their recommendation will reflect that and end up boring that already-bored admissions officer even further.

Take the time to get to know your potential recommenders outside the usual class environment. Stop by at lunch or after school. Ask for help with a tough assignment. Invite them to be an advisor for a club you are founding (starting a club: also a good idea). Offer to help with class preparation—teaching is hard work and there is a lot they could probably use your help with!

All these one-on-one interactions are an opportunity for your recommender to get to know you better and appreciate aspects of your personality that they might miss during class when you are just one student among many. If you do not actively create these opportunities, we can guarantee they will not just happen on their own.

When your recommender is a teacher of yours, there is another, equally valuable benefit to building a personal connection. It could help you gain a better understanding of their expectations of you as a student, so you will probably end up doing better in their class.

Not only will they be able to comment positively on your personal qualities, but your improved academic performance will provide a strong foundation for a recommendation that stands out from the rest. Keep in mind, this win-win situation can only arise if you take the time to nurture an authentic connection with your recommender.

When the time comes to ask for a recommendation, do not leave important details to chance. Remember, the goal is for your recommender to focus on your academic achievements, relevant extracurricular activities, and admirable personal qualities. Also, remember your recommender is probably a busy person, so they may need their memory refreshed about some of those details that they should include.

A friendly, polite conversation followed up with an equally friendly, polite email summarizing what you have accomplished will go a long way toward ensuring your recommender covers the right topics in their recommendation. If they disagree about any of them, take that as constructive criticism and have a conversation about how to improve. A positive response to criticism is one more personal quality that will make you stand out as someone worth recommending.

Keep in mind that you typically will not be able to read your recommendations before they are submitted, but you can certainly improve your odds of getting good ones. The strategies we discussed here should help you do just that.

Still, need some expert assistance? Bentham Admissions is here to help with a full range of tutoring and admissions coaching services to ensure that your letters of recommendation lead to something even more important: letters of acceptance.



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