How to write good letters of recommendation | MIT Admissions (2023)

Because of our highly competitive applicant pool, letters of recommendation hold substantial weight in our admissions decisions. A well-written letter for an outstanding applicant can show impressive characteristics beyond their own self-advocacy.

A guide to writing evaluations for MIT

Both school counselor and teacher evaluations are most helpful when they are specific and storied. They should provide us with the information and impressions we cannot glean from the rest of the application. Try to give a complete sketch of the student and the context of their accomplishments. Support your conclusions with facts and anecdotes whenever possible.

Try to address the following questions in your evaluation:

  • What is the context of your relationship with the applicant? If you do not know the applicant well and are only able to write a brief summary, please acknowledge this.
  • Has the student demonstrated a willingness to take intellectual risks and go beyond the normal classroom experience?
  • Does the applicant have any unusual competence, talent, or leadership abilities?
  • What motivates this person? What excites them?
  • How does the applicant interact with teachers? With peers? Describe their personality and social skills.
  • What will you remember most about this person?
  • If you have knowledge of MIT, what leads you to believe MIT is a good match for this person? How might they fit into the MIT community and grow from the MIT experience?
  • Has the applicant ever experienced disappointment or failure? If so, how did they react?
  • Are there any unusual family or community circumstances of which we should be aware?

Please pay special attention to the opening and closing of your evaluation. Remember, we are reading over 30,000 applications, and we appreciate strong statements that we’ll remember as we evaluate each candidate. With that said, please write in a way that makes you feel comfortable and do not shy away from giving us your honest impressions. We are only looking for glowing superlatives if they are backed up with examples and give us context; what is behind a student’s achievements. Above all else, make sure to go beyond a student’s grades and academic performance. We can get this information from other parts of the application.

(Video) How to get a strong recommendation letter (Get Accepted to Your Dream University Part #8)

Letters of recommendation are confidential in the MIT admissions process.

Examples letters of recommendation and critiques

Teacher recommendation for David:

It is a great pleasure for me to recommend David for admission to MIT. He is one of the most extraordinary students I have encountered in 20 years of teaching. I taught David A.P. Calculus last year as a tenth grader, and he was one of the very top students in an extremely able group of mostly seniors. He has a high aptitude for math and was very much involved in his work, applying himself with persistence and dedication and often going beyond the regular class assignments.

David’s abiding interest, however, is computer science. He has developed a series of “strands” for use in providing computerized drill and review in the basic skills and techniques of algebra and arithmetic and has recently adapted these to other subjects. David’s work in this area has been so original and significant that he has published a paper on it and delivered several lectures to professionals in other parts of the country. This is a phenomenal accomplishment for anyone, especially a young man in rural Arkansas. It is also worth noting that both last year and this year David taught computer programming to a tenth-grade class of mine for two weeks. He took over completely, preparing lectures, assignments, and tests with great care and thought. His lectures were clear and well organized, and it was obvious that he had expended a great deal of effort to make the course the success that it was.

David’s personal qualities are as impressive as his intellectual accomplishments. An extremely kind, sensitive and sensible boy, he has had a difficult family situation for a few years now. He provides emotional support to his mother through her battle with cancer without allowing the situation to undermine his own stability and accomplishments. He has exhausted all that we have to offer him in this small community, and the maturity that he has demonstrated leads me to believe him capable of entering college a year early, as he now plans to do. I sincerely hope that you will be able to offer him a place in MIT’s freshman class.

Critique:Excellent! This recommendation is filled with comments from someone who clearly knows this student well. We get a clear sense for not only David’s intellectual capacities, but also emotional maturity. His genuine love for computer programming comes through in this teacher’s description. We also realize that he is pushing academic boundaries in his community and making opportunities for himself—a trait that is especially important for a candidate seeking college admissions a year early.

(Video) Elements of a strong recommendation letter

Teacher recommendation for Jen:

Jen was a student in one of my predominately senior physics classes. She took physics her junior year in high school and was a good student. Through hard work, she was able to develop a good understanding of the subject material.

Jen also had personal qualities that are commendable. In the two years that I have known her I have never known her to be dishonest or untrustworthy. Once on an exam paper I had made a grading error in her favor. She brought this to my attention even though it resulted in a lower test grade.

In conclusion, I feel that Jen has both the academic and personal qualities to be a credit to the college of her choice, and I give her my recommendation without reservation.

Critique: We receive thousands of recommendations like this each year. It is all positive, but it doesn’t give any real depth to the candidate. In this instance, the reader is left feeling the writer is reaching for something to say. Honesty and trustworthiness are certainly admirable traits, but they are not uncommon among the nation’s top college applicants. We are looking for a compelling reason to admit someone, so information on the class material does not help the candidate. Although Jen may be a hard worker, most of our applicants are. Although the comments are positive, it is difficult to grasp onto anything tangible to make this candidate’s case stronger. Was this faint praise intentional? How does Jen fare in comparison with other (more outstanding?) candidates at the school?

Counselor recommendation for Mary:

Mary has contributed to the school community in a variety of ways, most notably through her participation on the newspaper and yearbook staffs. Frankly, I am impressed with her aggressiveness, creativity, determination and ability to schedule extracurricular activities around a full academic workload. I have never heard Mary complain about her workload or refuse any assignment that she has been given. It is not adequate to say that she accepts responsibility readily. Sheseeksresponsibility. Oh, for more such students!

(Video) Writing a successful Letter of Recommendation (LOR) | To the teachers of International Students!

As business manager for the paper and co-editor of the yearbook the past two years, Mary has done an outstanding job. She personally brought the town’s business community from the view that the school newspaper was a charitable organization to the realization that the paper is a direct pipeline through which advertisers can reach students. She also took the initiative to set up the advertising rate schedule for the paper that produced enough revenue to expand coverage from a four-page paper, so that it is an eight-page and often twelve-page paper. Her work as photographer for both publications has been equally outstanding.

Her motivation is not forced upon her, nor does she wear it like a badge. She has tremendous self-discipline. Mary is also a dedicated, versatile and talented student who will be an asset to your undergraduate community. She has my respect and my highest recommendation.

Critique: Good. Lots of specifics here give us a very clear impression and help us to know why that impression is held. We have evidence of her newspaper directives and overall character.

Counselor recommendation for Jane:

Jane is an outstanding young woman whose academic record may not fully reflect her ability. Her parents were divorced during her junior year, and, for several years before that, her home situation had been in turmoil with a great deal of fighting between her parents. Her father has an alcohol problem, and Jane certainly endured a great deal of emotional distress. The fact that she has been able to do as well as she has done given the circumstances says a lot about her. Now that the home situation has stabilized, her performance has improved. I believe her senior year grades are a much better reflection of her ability.

Critique: You may wonder whether or not the above information is appropriate in a letter of evaluation. It is! We appreciate anything that gives us insight and perspective into a student’s performance and the environment. Comments about problems that a student has experienced will help us understand the context in which they have accomplished whatever they have achieved. The extent to which they have dealt with these problems is useful to know as well.

(Video) Productivity Tutorial - Writing a letter of recommendation

Counselor recommendation for Mike:

I do not really know Mike very well. He has come to me for routine matters but generally has not had any problems that he has discussed with me. In this large school, I do not always have the time to personally get to know each of my advisees. From the comments I get from Mike’s teachers, I have the impression that he is one of the strongest students this school has seen.

Critique: We do not learn very much from this report, but we understand why. The counselor is very honest, and we are not left guessing as to the reason there is not more information and will turn our attention to other parts of the application.

Teacher recommendation for Brian:

Brian was in the top five in my class consistently. He is certainly motivated to study. His character and personality are admirable. Brian is an excellent student, hard worker and has above average reasoning ability.

Critique: This is an example of an evaluation in which we really don’t know what the writer is trying to tell us. The comments provided certainly do not give much substantive information. We are left wondering whether there is just not much to say about this student or whether the teacher just didn’t bother to put much effort into the recommendation. This is a situation where we will probably form our impressions based on the pattern of all the recommendations. If all are equally uninformative, we will assume there wasn’t much to say, but if the others are better, we will assume this teacher did not give much effort to the recommendation.


How do you write an impressive letter of recommendation? ›

As you write your letter, make sure it does the following:
  1. #1: Explains Why You're Qualified to Recommend the Candidate. ...
  2. #2: Customized to the New Position. ...
  3. #3: Uses Specific Examples and Anecdotes. ...
  4. Use an Official Format. ...
  5. Start with a Strong Opener. ...
  6. Include Two to Three Specific Examples.
11 Jan 2020

What do admissions officers look for in letters of recommendation? ›

Admissions officers want to learn about your personal qualities and strengths from your recommenders. These personal qualities could include integrity, caring for others, thoughtfulness, humor, and passion. Two traits they especially value are demonstrated leadership and strength of character.

What are the 5 parts of a recommendation letter? ›

What to Include in a Letter of Recommendation
  • Context. ...
  • Specifics. ...
  • A match between the position's requirements and the candidate's skills. ...
  • Writer Name and Address. ...
  • Salutation. ...
  • Paragraph 1 – Introduction. ...
  • Paragraph 2 – Details. ...
  • Paragraph 3 – Summary.
5 Nov 2020

Do universities contact references? ›

Universities are generally unable to interview every applicant (especially for taught masters), so they use references to gain an impression of the applicant and inform their decision about whether to accept you on to the course.

How do you write a letter of recommendation for a student you don't know well? ›

(If you don't know the student well, and don't have much to say, add a short paragraph explaining what the course is and why it's good that the student excelled in it. This won't fool most people, but will soften the blow of a short letter.) However, don't ramble: make it succinct and to the point.

What makes a letter of recommendation strong? ›

A great letter will focus on your accomplishments, contributions, motivation, attitude, reliability, consistency, and other such skills. It is crucial to ensure that the person providing the recommendation knows you well and has a favorable opinion of your capability.

How do you write a killer reference letter? ›

2. What makes a great letter of recommendation?
  1. Approach the letter as an endorsement, not as a critique. ...
  2. Keep it concise. ...
  3. Focus on the candidate's achievements, not just their job duties. ...
  4. Think about what makes your candidate great for the job, not just what makes them great in general.
  5. Don't talk about yourself.
30 Apr 2022

Do colleges really care about recommendation letters? ›

Letters of recommendation are particularly valuable to admissions officers because the experiences that high school counselors and teachers describe can help them paint a better overall picture of who you are and the impact you will have on campus.

What are your 3 qualities that will add value to college? ›

These are the seven qualities that you should try to illustrate in your university application.
  • A positive attitude towards study.
  • A passion for the chosen course subject.
  • An ability to think and work independently.
  • An ability to persevere and complete tasks.
  • An inquiring mind.
  • Good written English.

What should you avoid in a letter of recommendation? ›

A successful letter should avoid:
  • General language or overly broad descriptors of the student's performance in the classroom;
  • Focusing on a student's punctuality or ability to complete the readings. ...
  • Too much time and attention detailing the relationship with the student or the content of the course.

What should not be included in a recommendation? ›

Although it is important to explain why you are qualified to write the recommendation, mention only your role in the candidate's life and how long you have known the candidate; do not expound upon your own career path. Write only what will allow the reader to weigh what you say about the candidate.

What is the best wording for a recommendation? ›

It's my absolute pleasure to recommend [Name] for [position] with [Company]. [Name] and I [relationship] at [Company] for [length of time]. I thoroughly enjoyed my time working with [Name], and came to know [him/her/them] as a truly valuable asset to our team.

Can you fake recommendation letters? ›

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.

What do top universities look for in applicants? ›

Good grades, a challenging high school curriculum, standardized test scores, extracurriculars, and a strong essay are a few key factors admissions officers assess. Each university may emphasize different elements of the application process.

What do universities look for in a reference? ›

It might include your career goals and work experience – so talk these through with them first – as well as how well you've done in specific modules or course components. If your referee is one of your teachers, they can add your predicted grades for any pending qualifications you're studying now.

Who should you not ask for a letter of recommendation? ›

Don't ask a family member or a friend for a recommendation as a college may not take them seriously. You should always follow the guidelines from the colleges you are applying to when choosing who to write your letter of recommendation.

How do you secure strong letters of recommendation? ›

How to secure strong recommendation letters
  1. Choose people who know you well. That ENC 1102 professor you spoke to once or twice is not the ideal person to vouch for you. ...
  2. 2.Do not procrastinate. ...
  3. Provide as much information as possible. ...
  4. Tell them your deadlines upfront. ...
  5. Send one reminder. ...
  6. Say thank you.
5 Feb 2020

Do letters of recommendation get checked? ›

Colleges will compare the information you list in your application to the letters of recommendation they receive. They will become suspicious if the two paint two different portraits. In addition, colleges require you to abide by the honor system, which they take very seriously.

What is a good sentence for reference? ›

"He made a passing reference to religion in his speech." "In his lectures, he makes frequent references to his political views." "She was a good character reference." "She gave me a good reference for this job."

How do you write a glowing reference? ›

5 tips for writing a glowing letter of recommendation
  1. Don't start with “To Whom You May Concern.” ...
  2. Use the CAR format. ...
  3. Include facts, avoid claims. ...
  4. Quote a client. ...
  5. Tell a story.
20 Jan 2016

What are the 4 materials that you can use as references? ›

Reference Materials
  • Dictionaries (both language and topical)
  • Encyclopedias.
  • Bibliographies (lists of resources on a specific topic)
  • Research handbooks and guides.
  • Catalogs.
  • Atlases and maps.
  • Directories.

What does a good college recommendation letter look like? ›

A recommendation letter should fill an entire page (usually 400 – 500 words) and contain an introduction, two (2) body paragraphs, and a conclusion. The student should be described in a way that highlights both their academic skills and personal qualities.

What skills should I highlight in a letter of recommendation? ›

Traits that should be considered for discussion in a letter include past job/task performances, experience and expertise, intellectual ability, and personal attributes as they pertain to leadership quality, teambuilding, perseverance, and communication skills.

What are the six basic sections to a letter of recommendation? ›

Lesson Summary

Each letter should also contain the following six basic sections: address and date, relationship to the candidate, quality of work, individual characteristics, letter summary, and signature.

Is it OK to copy letters of recommendation? ›

Keep copies of letters

If you decide to apply for a similar job or academic program, you may also want to use the same letter of recommendation for that application. In this case, ask your reference for permission before you use their letter for another application.

Can a letter of recommendation hurt you? ›

Yes. A bad recommendation can ruin your chances. If a letter writer were to write that you had committed some grave academic dishonesty, for example, that would look extremely bad for you, even if the others were generally positive.

Do colleges look at other recommenders? ›

According to the most recent survey, 15 percent of colleges report that the counselor recommendation has "considerable importance," while 46 percent say these letters have "moderate importance." For teacher recommendations, 11 percent of colleges report that they are of "considerable importance" while 46 percent say ...

What do elite colleges look for? ›

Colleges look not only at your overall GPA but also at how well you did in individual classes. If your school has a class rank, that shows how much competition you faced with grades and performance to reach a particular level.

What do admissions officers look for? ›

Admissions officers look at “hard factors” (GPA, grades, and test scores) and “soft factors” (essays, extracurricular activities, recommendations, and demonstrated interest) to gain a full picture of applicants.

What personalities do universities look for? ›

Here are 9 character traits that colleges often cite when they describe what they are looking for in students.
  • Curiosity. ...
  • Persistence. ...
  • Risk-taking. ...
  • Compassion. ...
  • open-mindedness. ...
  • Social Consciousness. ...
  • Creativity. ...
  • Collaboration.

What are the bases of your recommendation? ›

Recommendations should be one-sentence, succinct, and start with an action verb (create, establish, fund, facilitate, coordinate, etc.). They should use a “SMART” format (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely). Each recommendation should be followed by a few sentences of explanatory text.

How long should a recommendation letter be? ›

The length and submission of a recommendation letter

The recommendation letter should be no more than two pages in length. Although a recommendation letter is more about quality than quantity, a letter containing only a few sentences is not recommended.

Can a family friend write a letter of recommendation? ›

Do not ask a family member, friend, or a teacher you had several years ago. Your uncle and your second grade teacher may be wonderful people, but their letters won't have much credibility. And don't ask someone who doesn't know you well, no matter what their title is.

What are problems with a letter of recommendation? ›

The main problem in writing letters of recommendation derives from a basic contradiction: the recommender wants to promote the candidate, yet at the same time he or she needs to convey the impression of giving an objective evaluation.

Does it matter who writes your letter of recommendation? ›

Letters of recommendation should be written by people who know you well and who have been responsible for evaluating your academic or professional work. Professors and workplace supervisors are both appropriate. Get some tips from our admissions team.

What is the example of letter of recommendation? ›

Letter of recommendation for employee

Dear [insert name], I am writing to recommend [employee_name]. [He/She/They] worked with us at [company_name] as a [employee_job_title] and [reported to me/ worked with me] in my position as [insert your job title]. As an employee, [employee_name] was always [insert quality].

How do you write an amazing recommendation? ›

General Tips for Recommendation Letters
  1. Consider the Request Thoughtfully. ...
  2. Clarify the Purpose. ...
  3. Get the Details. ...
  4. Verify Relevant Skills. ...
  5. Cover Key Traits. ...
  6. Keep It Simple. ...
  7. Be Sincere and Truthful. ...
  8. Proofread Carefully.

What are the words you used to express your recommendation? ›

  • Have you tried ...?
  • I (would) (strongly) suggest/advise that ...
  • If I was/were you, I'd ...
  • In my experience, ... works really well.
  • It's generally best/a good idea to...
  • One idea is to ...
  • One thing you could/should/have to do is ...
  • The best/most important thing (to do) is to ...

What is an example of a recommendation letter? ›

Letter of Recommendation Template

It's my absolute pleasure to recommend [Name] for [position] with [Company]. [Name] and I [relationship] at [Company] for [length of time]. I thoroughly enjoyed my time working with [Name], and came to know [him/her/them] as a truly valuable asset to our team.

How do you write a good university reference? ›

Common themes can include:
  1. what motivates them.
  2. academic achievements – not just grades, but specific successes as well.
  3. reasons why they want to return to study – it's good to align with what's in their personal statement.
  4. their commitment and enthusiasm to the subject.

What should a letter of recommendation for college say? ›

Your letter should highlight your most important personal and academic strengths, as well as support them with examples. Rather than repeating your resume, it should focus on just a few key aspects of who you are as a student and person.

What are the qualities of a good letter of recommendation? ›

Traits that should be considered for discussion in a letter include past job/task performances, experience and expertise, intellectual ability, and personal attributes as they pertain to leadership quality, teambuilding, perseverance, and communication skills.

What are the 6 details that should be included in a letter of recommendation? ›

Here's some information you should provide:
  • Your resume & cover letter.
  • Your personal statement (if you're a student applying for university)
  • The name of your target university or company.
  • A link to the description of your target job or program.
  • Personal strengths or characteristics you'd like them to focus on.
14 Mar 2022

What are four examples of a good reference person? ›

Who To Use As A Reference? 5 References That Should Be on Your List to Land the Job
  • Former Employer as a professional reference. A previous employer can provide the best insight into your work ethic. ...
  • Colleague. ...
  • Teacher. ...
  • Advisor. ...
  • Supervisor.
7 Jul 2021

What are good things to say for a reference? ›

  • Be honest about what you are and are not willing to say to the recruiter.
  • Ask the candidate to refresh your memory about his top accomplishments and contributions if you haven't worked together in awhile.
  • Convey enthusiasm about your colleague and her ability to do the job well.
30 Oct 2015


1. How to Write Your Own Letter of Recommendation | BeMo Academic Consulting
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2. Insider's Guide to Writing a Great Letter of Recommendation
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3. How to Get the Best Letters of Recommendation for College | The Princeton Review
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4. How To Write An Professional Reference Letter For University Admission & Scholarships
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5. Tips from Admissions: Writing Recommendation Letters
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6. How To Write An Academic Reference Letter For University Admission
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