Reference Letter Creative Personal Essays

Thoreau once wrote, “The language of friendship is not words but meanings.” In the case of a character reference, the language of friendship involves both words and meanings. If you’re tasked with writing a character reference, then your mission is to write about your friend and all her amazing qualities.

How exactly can you fulfill this mission of writing an outstanding character reference? This guide will help you through the writing process with a template for your letter. To begin, let’s go over the purpose of a character reference.

 

What’s the Purpose of a Character Reference?

You might have a friend, relative, or neighbor ask you to write a character reference. You usually base this reference on your personal, rather than professional, relationship with the subject. There are a few different reasons why someone might need you to write her a character reference.

 

In the Professional World...

Some people need a character reference for a job. Hiring managers could ask for one as a way to get to know the candidate on a more personal level. They might also want to make sure the candidate is trustworthy, particularly if the job calls for a high level of ethics.

My friend, for instance, recently provided a reference for his friend applying to the U.S. State Department. If the applicant didn’t provide at least three great character references, then there was no way he was getting high level security clearance.

Another reason that a job candidate might seek a character reference is to use it as a supplement to her application. If she’s young and hasn’t had many jobs before, then she may add a personal letter to support her cause.

 

Outside the Professional World...

Outside of job applications, there are other circumstances that call for a personal recommendation. Someone might be applying to a position in the community, like membership in a local club. Students could need a character reference as they apply to scholarships or awards.

People looking to adopt or provide foster care for a child often need character references. They also seek them when trying to buy a house or condo. Finally, character references can also be used to support someone in court.

The purpose of your letter will shape what you say to some extent. For this article, I’ll focus on a character reference that gives insight into someone’s personal attributes and could most realistically be used for a job or volunteer-type position.

In a general sense, all character references share the same mission: to reveal the subject’s personal strengths and to show support. If you’ve taken on this mission, how can you produce a memorable character reference? This guide will lead you through the writing process, step by step.

 

Whether your friend wants to get a job, buy a house, or go on the next mission to Mars, your character reference should explain why she's the best person for the role.

 

Writing a Character Reference: 4 Steps

While there are several ingredients that go into producing a strong letter, there are two in particular that stand out. The first is organizing your thoughts in a clear and meaningful way. The second is giving specific examples to paint a picture of the subject.

These are two of the most important lessons in crafting a strong letter, but also two of the most challenging to carry out. To help you meet this challenge, I’ve broken down the writing process into four steps. The first, you might be happy to hear, doesn’t require you to do any writing yet!

 

Step 1: Speak to the Candidate

The responsibility for this first step of the letter writing process actually falls on the shoulders of the person asking for the letter. She should share details of the letter’s purpose, whether it’s for a job, community position, or house, for example.

She might have ideas for qualities or stories you could share in your letter. If the position seeks someone with a strong code of ethics, then the candidate should let you know to highlight instances when she showed honesty and integrity.

The subject of your letter might also share her resume or any other relevant materials. By getting all the important details, you can make sure your character reference is customized and relevant. You both might brainstorm ideas together, too, which brings us to the next stage of the reference writing process.

 

Step 2: Brainstorm Ideas for Your Reference

This second stage of your character reference writing process is all about preparation. Take a few moments to gather your thoughts and sort through your ideas for the letter.

What qualities jump out when you think about the candidate? What anecdotes could you share to support your evaluation? Why does she deserve to get the position or move into the neighborhood?

Some qualities that could jog your thinking include,

Ethical, honest, trustworthy
Determined, goal-oriented, hard-working
Fair, honest
Generous, giving, helpful
Creative, curious
Considerate, empathetic, kind
Loyal, committed, reliable
Responsible, mature
Charming, funny, lighthearted, charismatic
Easygoing, lighthearted
Intelligent, studious
Organized
Patient, supportive, sensitive
Good listener
Good communicator, well-spoken
Independent
Resilient

 

Once you’ve brainstormed qualities, pick out three or so to highlight. These should really capture the subject, as well as be relevant to the situation. If you’re writing a letter for a babysitting job, then you might want to zoom in on the candidate’s caring and responsible nature. If you’re supporting someone’s application to buy a house, then you might focus more on her reliability or neighborly qualities.

Once you’ve chosen your top three, think about specific anecdotes you could share when the candidate demonstrated those qualities. As you’ll see in the template below, you should share two to three specific examples to really illustrate the person and validate your description. Once you’ve thought of some ideas, you’re ready to start drafting!

 

Ready to start drafting? Use the roadmap below to reach your destination!

 

Step 3: Draft Your Character Reference with this Template

Once you’ve arrived at the drafting stage, you should have some idea of what you want to say in your character reference. You know what the letter is for and have thought of some ways to describe your friend.

Once you have your ideas, you can follow a pretty straightforward structure for producing your letter. The following template will go over this structure, piece by piece. To begin, let’s start with basic contact information.

 

Insert Contact Information at the Top

Ideally, you can address your reference to a specific person. Writing to a specific person is more personal than, “To Whom It May Concern.” If it’s not possible, though, then a more generalized greeting is fine.

If you have official letterhead with your contact information at the top then you should go ahead and use it. If not, then you might write out your contact information on the top left margin, followed by the addressee’s contact information.

Your contact information could look something like this: 

Joe Smith
School Director
Fun Among Us Daycare
5 Main St.
Anytown, CA 90210

 

Below your contact information, insert the details for the person to whom you’re writing, like this: 

Stella McKay
Director
A+ Tutoring
60 School St.
Booktown, TX 73344

 

Below this contact information, start your letter with a salutation of, “Dear [name].” Once you have your contact information set, you can start in on the introduction.

 

Paragraph 1: The Introduction

Now you’re ready to start your letter. You should start out strong with a statement of support. Some positive phrases include,

I am honored to support...
I am pleased to provide a reference for...
I am delighted to be called upon...
I am happy to recommend...
I have no hesitation in recommending...
It’s my pleasure to recommend...

 

Here are a couple examples for starting your letter:

1. It’s my pleasure to recommend Jackie to the position of Intelligence Operations Officer with the U.S. Secret Service. 

2. I’m very happy to recommend Aaron for membership in the Hometown Community Service Club.

3. I’m pleased to provide a reference for Alisha as she seeks a nannying position with your family.

 

In addition to starting out strong, you should also explain who you are and how you know the candidate. Qualify the nature of your relationship so that the reader understands why your opinion is a valuable one. Here are a few examples for your next sentence.

1. I met Jackie, my assigned roommate, on the first day of college, and we continued to live together for the next four years. Despite living in different cities after graduation, we've remained close friends. 

2. Aaron and I developed a strong friendship since he moved in next door four years ago. 

3. As Alisha's aunt, I've watched her grow up into a mature and responsible young woman who's always her cousins' first pick for Saturday night babysitter.

 

Once you’ve introduced yourself, you could give a brief summary of what qualities you’ll touch on in the rest of your letter. For example, these lines set up the content in the next couple of paragraphs: 

1. Jackie inspired me with her ethics, intelligence, and ambition throughout our college years and beyond.

2. Aaron's an exceptional neighbor and friend who actively contributes to the well-being of our community.

3. Alisha's a reliable, warm, and creative person who's skilled at caring for children of all ages.

 

Overall, your introductory paragraph should consist of three to five sentences. Show your support right off the bat, and make sure to explain who you and why your reference holds weight. Indicate the reason for the reference, and give a brief description of the candidate. Then you can flesh out this description in two to three body paragraphs.

 

Body Paragraphs

You could include two to three body paragraphs, depending on what qualities you want to touch on. Each paragraph should have a specific focus; for instance, you could highlight one facet of the person’s character and pair it with an anecdote.

You should order the body paragraphs starting with the most relevant point. Consider what qualities the reader of your letter is looking for. What will be most helpful and impressive? Put that quality first.

Here are a couple examples for body paragraphs.

1. Jackie is a person of high moral character. Her strong sense of ethics came through in discussions in and out of our political science classes. A real-life ethical test came along junior year, when she found a wallet with hundreds of dollars of cash outside. Keeping any of the money didn’t seem to occur to Jackie for a second, and she tracked down its owner and mailed it back first-class. She’s always someone I can trust to do the right thing and is the first person I think to call when confronted with my own moral dilemmas.

 

2. Aaron is motivated by a strong sense of social responsibility. He makes a difference everyday in his position as physical education teacher at the middle school and volunteer coach of the soccer and wrestling teams. Last year, the district recognized his contributions with the Coach of the Year award. One of his soccer players, who’d been identified as an at-risk student, said a few touching words about how Aaron believed in him and helped him feel reconnected to school. Aaron's a much-loved teacher and coach who’s committed to the well-being of his students.

 

3. Alisha is a creative person who’s able to keep even my energetic kids engaged and happy. She’s chock full of ideas for art projects, sports competitions, and make-believe games. Last time she watched her cousins, they ended up putting together and acting out their own production of Frozen. She’s great at devising activities that are fun, safe, and surprisingly effective at getting kids active and away from their iPads.

 

Of course, your body paragraphs will be customized to the individual. The basic formula of “description + anecdote” is useful to keep in mind as you draft these. You’ll find a summary of a basic template for the body paragraphs of your character reference below. First, though, let’s consider the final paragraph of your letter, the conclusion.

 

Conclusion and Signature

After wrapping up the body paragraphs, you’ve reached the end of your character reference. Your conclusion can just be three to five sentences long, and its content is pretty straightforward.

First, you can reiterate your support or high opinion of the candidate. Here are a couple examples of how to do this:

1. In closing, I'd like to reiterate my unequivocal support for Jackie as she seeks appointment to the Secret Service.

2. As you can tell, I think the world of Aaron and recommend him for membership in Hometown Community Service Club without hesitation. 

3. Alisha has my highest recommendation as a childcare provider and all-around great human being.

 

Then, you might summarize the points you’ve made or add a few more descriptive words. Remember that the conclusion is your final chance to communicate your recommendation, so you want to leave the reader with a lasting good impression. For instance, you might say something like this:

1. Jackie is not only brilliant, but also a highly ethical person and loyal friend.

2. Aaron's made countless contributions to our community and will be able to extend his reach as a club member.

3. Alisha is responsible, patient, and sensitive to the needs of children.

 

Finally, invite the reader to contact you for any further information. Show that you’re happy to confirm your character reference or add anything else via email or phone. You can also thank the reader for her time.

1. Please don't hesitate to contact me for any further information. Thank you for your time.

2. Please feel free to get in touch with any questions. Thank you.

 

At the end, sign your name and print it beneath, perhaps with your phone number and email if they're not at the top of your letter. Then, you’ve reached the end of your character reference!

To review, let’s put all the pieces together into this final template.

 

Use the template below to shape your letter from a rough ball of clay to a polished final product.

 

Drafting your Character Reference: Final Template

The personal recommendation letter template below reflects the above structure, including the contact information, introductory paragraph, body paragraphs, conclusion, and final signature.

Your Name
Position [if relevant]
Workplace [if relevant]
Street Address
City, State, Zip Code

 

Addressee's Name
Position [if relevant]
Company [if relevant]
Street Address
City, State, Zip Code

 

Dear [Addressee's Name],

It's my great pleasure to provide this character reference for [name] for [purpose of letter]. I've been close friends with [name] for the past [number of years]. [Name of candidate] is [two to three descriptors], and I have no doubt that he/she would make an outstanding addition to [company, club, etc]. Please allow me to give three examples of her personal strengths.

Body Paragraphs 1 - 3: [Name] stands out for his/her [quality]. Last year, for example, he/she [specific example]. He/she consistently [description of personal attributes]. [Name] is unique for his/her [specific qualities].*

*Present 2-3 main characteristics of the candidate in the body paragraphs, each with a specific example if possible. Put them in order of importance and relevance. Use strongly positive language, but try not to sound over the top.

In closing, I'd like to restate my wholehearted support for [name's] as she seeks [purpose of letter]. He/she is [most important qualities]. I have no doubt that she will continue to have great success with [company, club, etc]. Please don't hesitate to contact me for any further information. Thank you for your time.

Sincerely,

[Signature]

Name
Position [if relevant]
Email
Phone Number

 

Of course, the body paragraphs leave a lot of space for customization. This space allows you to make your personal recommendation letter unique to the candidate. Once you’ve drafted your letter, you just have one more important step in the writing process.

 

Step 4: Edit for Clarity

Before sending off your character reference, take a few minutes to edit and revise. First, make sure there are no spelling or grammar errors. Beyond fixing any mistakes, take a look at your writing and make sure it’s clear.

Whoever’s reading your letter may not have a ton of time to look closely at every word. Your letter should leave a powerful impression without requiring a big time commitment from the reader. In other words, your goal is to be concise.

If you can make the same impact with fewer words, do so. Eliminate unnecessary adverbs and adjectives that add bulk but not meaning. If a sentence feels cluttered, try your best to clean it up. 

Once you’ve tightened up your writing, your letter is ready to submit! You’ve produced a well-structured reference that compliments the candidate and gives specific examples that speak to her character.

In closing, let’s review the key points to remember about drafting a character reference.

 

This wary cat has no reason to worry. Her canine roommate just finished writing an excellent character reference. He didn't even mention her habit of clawing the couch or knocking over glasses of water.

 

Key Points: Writing a Character Reference

If you’re writing a character references, chances are you’re writing about a friend, neighbor, or relative. Your task is to write about this person’s favorable attributes and describe what makes him/her special.

The content of your letter will largely be shaped by what it’s being used for. If you’re writing for a job, then you may want to shed light on the subject’s personality and relevant qualities, like ethics and trustworthiness. If you’re writing for membership in a community club, then you might talk about the subject’s community connections or leadership.

Whatever your letter’s purpose, it should be strongly positive and use specific examples. Rather than turning into a list of adjectives, your letter should have anecdotes that reveal positive things about the subject.

By telling stories and using a clear and concise structure, you can produce a stand-out character reference and impress your readers!

 

What’s Next?

Are you interested in professional letters of recommendation for jobs? This guide contains a recommendation letter template to help you through the writing process.

Ready to read some reference letter samples? This article has nine free samples of recommendation letters, including a character reference!

Interested in recommendation letters for college? This guide has four amazing recommendation letter samples written by high school teachers.

 

When I applied to college, I was accepted into every school I applied to, including Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, MIT, the Ivy League, UC Berkeley, UCLA, and more. While I had a strong overall application, the two teacher letters of recommendation were CRITICAL in getting me admitted.

Why? Both teachers said I was one of the top students they had ever taught. Both enthusiastically advocated for my personality, leadership skills, and energy.

How can YOU earn recommendation letters that will get you into your top choice colleges? I'll show you how in this article.

For the first time, I'm sharing my FULL, UNEDITED letters of recommendation as examples for you. These are the exact letters submitted when I applied to college. Even better, you'll see exactly what my Harvard admissions officer underlined - what really stood out as important and noteworthy. 

 

First Things First

Quick question - how confident are you in knowing what colleges are looking for in your recommendation letters? 

Do you have a strong understanding of what an effective letter consists of, and what a bad letter looks like?

Many students have the totally wrong idea of what colleges are looking for in recommendation letters. This, naturally, leads to subpar letters for students. 

Before I show you my letters, I first want to explain WHY recommendation letters from teachers are such an important part of your college application, and then WHAT makes effective letters so effective. 

If you're chomping at the bit and really want to jump directly to my letters, here's Recommendation Letter Example #1, and here's Recommendation Letter Example #2.

BUT I highly recommend that you stick with me for the next two sections - you'll get a lot more out of this guide and get much stronger rec letters as a result.

 

 

Why Teacher Recommendation Letters Are So Important for College

The goal of your overall college application is to communicate who you are as a person, in an easily digestible package that can take 20 minutes to understand (or less). From this package, colleges will decide whether they want you to join their community or not.

Yeah, it doesn't feel great to have your 18 years of existence compressed into a web form. But that's the best system colleges have come up with so far to deal with the tens of thousands of college applications they receive every year. (UCLA with a record 112,000+ applications) 

What do colleges care most about? Ultimately, it boils down to two things:

  • how likely you are to succeed in college and in your career
  • how much you'll benefit the school community as a student and beyond

These are the ultimate goals of colleges when selecting their next class of students. Your application must convince the college that you will succeed in both goals.

Of course, these are complex ideas - success is not only hard to predict, but different people also have different ideas of what success means.

But there are a few general principles that hold true for most colleges:

  • previous academic success is a great predictor of future academic success, which in turn predicts career success.

  • certain personality traits are preferred: integrity, leadership, curiosity, creativity, empathy, perseverance, motivation, ambition, collaboration, confidence, and others. You don't need to be perfect in all dimensions, but some of these should apply strongly to you. 

    • you also generally want to avoid the opposite of these traits. These are all bad adjectives: unethical, narrow-minded, unmotivated, self-centered, arrogant, rude.

For the first admissions requirement of academic success, your coursework and test scores play the biggest role. If you took a rigorous courseload and got a high GPA, and you got a high SAT/ACT score, you have shown that you can handle high school academics. This means you're in a great position to succeed academically in college.

 

Feel like your SAT/ACT scores aren't high enough to impress your top choice colleges? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your SAT/ACT score. Download it for free now:

 

How do you show the second requirement - personality traits? Part of this is in your personal essays and extracurriculars, where you'll show what you're interested in and give voice to your personality. 

But of course you'll describe yourself as curious, creative, collaborative, kind, and so forth. Who would describe themselves as unethical and mean?

This is why colleges need objective, third-party observers to comment on who you are. This is where your teacher recommendations come in, and why they're so important.

 

 

The role of the rec letter is to show who you are as a person. Your teachers have engaged with you throughout at least a year of class. They've seen you in class with other students, and possibly out of class too. There are hundreds of small interactions that piece together to form your teacher's impression of you.

How do you interact with students? How do you interact with teachers? How creative was your work? How much did you participate in class discussions? How motivated were you to excel in school?

Are you a jerk nobody wants to be around? Or are you someone the teacher entrusts with the future?

A great teacher recommendation tells the college all of the above. 

  

 

Let's Hear From Harvard's Dean of Admissions

What if you don't fully believe me yet? I'm just one guy with his own admissions experiences. 

So I'm going to call on William Fitzsimmons, Dean of Admissions at Harvard College:

Recommendations from secondary school teachers and counselors are extremely important at Harvard and at many other colleges, particularly those with selective admissions processes. Faced with more academically qualified applicants than places in the freshman class, our admission officers review the two required teacher recommendations and the counselor report with great care, often commenting on them in writing on “reader sheets” in each application.

We often project the recommendations themselves onto large screens so that all members of the Admissions Committee can see them during the subcommittee and full committee review processes in February and March.

Recommendations can help us to see well beyond test scores and grades and other credentials and can illuminate such personal qualities as character and leadership as well as intellectual curiosity, creativity, and love of learning. Along with essays, interviews, and other materials in the application, recommendations can offer evidence of an applicant’s potential to make a significant difference to a college community and beyond.

Source

 Notice how he says Harvard is "faced with more academically qualified applicants than places."

What does this imply? "Among a pool of students with the same academic qualifications, we use personality traits to decide who to admit or reject." And letters of recommendation for students describe those personality traits.

To beat a dead horse: your teacher recommendations add more color to your academic achievements, your test scores, and your GPA.

The best recommendation letters for colleges rave about your personality and personal qualities. 

This is why my two letters below are so effective.

You do NOT want your recommendation letters to just be repeats of your resume. This gives the admissions officer ZERO extra information about who you are a person.

You do NOT want your recommendation letters to just say, "Johnny got an A and turned in his homework on time." This makes it very obvious that the teacher has no idea who you are as a person, which means it adds ZERO to your application.

Great recommendations talk about more than your class performance. They discuss your personal qualities, how interacting with you feels like, and why you're likely to succeed in the future.

 

First, I'm going to show my letters to you, with analysis of why they were so effective. You'll see the highlights made by my Harvard admissions officer, which will tell you what things she found important.

Then I'll give you advice on how to build relationships with your teachers so you can get letters like this on your own.

 

 

My Letter of Recommendation Samples

Usually you don’t get to read letters of recommendation for students because you sign the FERPA waiver, waiving away your rights to read your application. But I was able to retrieve my full Common App and Harvard application from Harvard, complete with my original letters of recommendation.

Most colleges require you to have two letters from teachers in different subjects. The two teachers I asked for letters were my favorite two teachers in all of high school. 

Personally, I vibed most strongly with teachers who actually cared about teaching. They gave engaged students with energy, treated us kindly and empathetically, and went above expectations to help students succeed. Not only did I have the most fun with these teachers, but they were also more likely to advocate for me enthusiastically in their letter.

You might not vibe with teachers for the same reasons, but it's important you choose teachers you get along with and who you feel will write you very strong letters.

My first letter comes from my AP Chemistry teacher from 10th grade. My second comes from my AP English Language teacher from 11th grade.

As you read these letters, remember - these letters didn't come instantly. They take hundreds of small interactions over a year or more to build an impression of who you are. You can't trick a teacher into writing a great recommendation letter for you.

If you honestly like learning and are an enthusiastic, responsible, engaging student, a great recommendation letter will follow naturally. The horse should lead the cart.

 

 

Teacher Letter #1: AP Chemistry Teacher

I took AP Chemistry in 10th grade and had Miss Cherryl Vorak (now Mynster). She was one of our younger teachers, having taught for just a few years before I had her.

She was my favorite teacher throughout high school for these reasons:

  • She clearly took pride in her work. She was very caring, spent a lot of time helping struggling students, and seemed to consider teaching her craft.
  • She was universally well liked by her students, even if they weren’t doing so well. This is pretty rare. She was fair in her policies and grading, and she was kind. This was the kind of teacher where if you weren't doing well, you felt like it was your fault, not the teacher's. 

  • I participated in the US National Chemistry Olympiad (this was the major academic honor I earned) and she was my advocate and a great resource for this. She provided me a lot of training materials and helped me figure out college chemistry.

By the time I applied to college in senior year, I had known her for two full years and engaged with her continuously, even when I wasn't taking a class with her in junior year. We’d build up a strong relationship over the course of hundreds of small interactions.

All of this flowed down to the recommendation you see here. The horse leads the cart.

First, we’ll look at the teacher evaluation page. The Common Application now has 16 qualities to rate, rather than the 10 here. But they’re largely the same.

If the images are hard to read, keep scrolling down - I provide the recommendation in text form.

 

 

How long have you known this student and in what context?

I've known Allen as a student inside the classroom and outside the classroom in extracurricular academic activities since he was in the 10th grade.

What are the first words that come to your mind to describe this student?

Intelligent, motivated critical thinker; Charasmatic, well rounded, talented individual; Independent, mature, responsible student.

List the courses you have taught this student, noting for each the student's year in school (10th, 11th, 12th) and the level of course difficulty (AP, accelerated, honors, IB, elective, etc.)

As a 10th grader, Allen was one of the top students in my AP Chemistry class.

 

Please write whatever you think is important about this student, including a description of academic and personal characteristics. We are particularly interested in the candidate’s intellectual promise, motivation, maturity, integrity, independence, originality, initiative, leadership potential, capacity for growth, special talents, enthusiasm, concern for others, respect accorded by faculty, and reaction to setbacks. We welcome information that will help us to differentiate this student from others.

See enclosed letter.

 

Ratings

Compared to other college-bound students in his or her secondary school class, how do you rate this student in terms of:

 Below AverageAverageGood (above average)Very Good (well above average)Excellent (top 10%)Outstanding (top 5%)One of the top few encountered in my career
Creative, original thought      
Motivation      
Self-confidence      
Independence, initiative      
Intellectual ability      
Academic achievement      
Written expression of ideas      
Effective class discussion      
Disciplined work habits      
Potential for growth      

 

This was the Common Application from 2004-05, over 10 years ago. In today’s Common Application, all of these ratings are retained, aside from “Potential for Growth.” Today's Common App also now includes Faculty Respect, Maturity, Leadership, Integrity, Reaction to Setbacks, Concern for Others, and TE Overall. You can tell that Common App teacher evaluations place a strong emphasis on personality.

From Miss Vorak, you can see a very strong evaluation. First she says she's known me for over 2 years and has had interactions inside and outside the classroom. Then she's very enthusiastic with her "first words" answer, listing off a lot of strong personal traits. Finally, she gives me the highest ratings possible for all qualities. 

The Ratings section is really important. In one go, you're compared to all the students your teacher has ever taught. The better your ratings here, the more competitive you are relative to your classmates.

What makes for good enough ratings for you? That depends on your personal college goals and your school's competitiveness. The more competitive the colleges are, the higher up your ratings need to be.

If you're applying to your state school, where the admissions rate is >30%, and your high school is pretty competitve, simply being Very Good or Excellent can be a strong rating for you.

On the other hand, if you're applying to the most selective colleges like Harvard, Stanford, or the other Ivy League schools, it is important to be ranked “One of the top few encountered in my career” for as many ratings as possible. If you’re part of a big school, this is CRITICAL to distinguish yourself from other students. The more experienced and trustworthy the teacher, the more meaningful this is. You really want to make sure you’re one of the best in your school class, if not one of the best the teacher has ever encountered. 

 

Next, let’s look at her letter.

As you read this, think – what are the interactions that would prompt the teacher to write a recommendation like this? This was a relationship built up in a period of over 2 years, with every small interaction adding to an overall larger impression.

Again, if the images are too small to read, I'll have the exact text below, so scroll down.

 

 And here's the letter in text form. I've bolded the sections that were underlined by my Harvard admissions officer:

To Whom It May Concern:

It is with very great pleasure that I write this recommendation for Allen Cheng to support his application for admission into Harvard. Allen has a deep passion for science and has been one of the few exceptionally gifted students that I have encountered in my career as an Advanced Placement Chemistry teacher. Among his many achievements and accomplishments, Allen’s performance on a battery of Chemistry Olympiad exams taken by approximately 11,000 students nationwide recently secured him the position as the second alternate for the U.S. Chemistry Olympiad team, ranking 6th in the country for a team which represented our nation in the International Chemistry Olympiad competition in Germany this past spring. As a senior, Allen hopes to surpass his performance once more in hopes of securing a solid position as one of the four members on the 2005 U.S. Chemistry Olympiad team this coming spring.

I first encountered Allen when he was a sophomore in my AP Chemistry class. He was the youngest student in the class of upper classmen, but he was the top excelling student among the two sections of AP Chemistry classes that I taught during the 2002-2003 academic year. As a sophomore, he worked very well with others, mastered laboratory techniques, earned the top score on the AP Chemistry Exam, and was one of the top performers on the National Chemistry Olympiad Exam that year.

As one of the top performers on the National Chemistry Olympiad Exam in 2003, Allen was one of twenty students in the nation who qualified to be a participant in the United States National Chemistry Olympiad National Team in the spring that year. He spent an extensive amount of time studying independently in order to ensure that he would cover all of the topics that our class did not yet study and often sought additional instruction during lunch and after school during which he asked questions and performed labs from previous Chemistry Olympiad competitions for practice. When results were published, Allen was ecstatic to have qualified as one of the twenty participants in the U.S. Chemistry Olympiad Study Camp and he enjoyed the experience training for the International Chemistry Olympiad during which he was exposed to Organic Chemistry, Physical Chemistry, Analytical Chemistry, Biochemistry, etc., branches of science typically encountered at the college level.

As a member of my Advanced Placement Chemistry class, I have found Allen to be an intelligent, conscientious, motivated and responsible student who masters theory-and applies it well. He academically excelled among his peers, often explained concepts to confused classmates, actively participated during discussion, asked questions to ensure that he had a firm understanding of concepts, and sought additional sources for supplementary problem solving exercises. As a scientist, he was always meticulous when performing experiments, he led his lab group to successfully complete experiments, he wrote great detailed analytical lab reports, and he worked well with others. Allen is a self motivated, dedicated, hardworking student of high intelligence who can grasp difficult concepts, think critically and handle the rigor of a competitive college environment. He exhibits the qualities of a leader and promising scientist who truly loves science.

Allen truly impresses me as a student who actively seeks new experiences which support his love for science. This past summer, Allen was a participant at the Research Science Institute at MIT where he conducted research in the field of neuroscience. In addition, Allen has been conducting research with the Jisan Research Institute under the guidance of a professor for two years and has recently coauthored a paper which was published and presented in the LASTED International Conference on Robotics and Applications in Hawaii this year. In addition to conducting research, Allen has also been volunteering at Methodist Hospital and in an immunology lab at the City of Hope National Medical Center where he has been able to strengthen his general laboratory skills. He is clearly an independent, active member of society who pursues personal interests.

Beyond his academic excellence, Allen is a charismatic individual who is respected and liked by faculty and peers. Throughout his high school career, Allen often stopped by my room during lunch to take my AP Chemistry tests to review his general chemistry, but he also often stopped by during lunch or after school to chat about his latest developments, events in school, or other various topics. His maturity and charisma are qualities that are quite rare among high school students. He interacts well with his peers be it in the classroom setting or with the broader diverse student population where he is well known as a balanced individual with a warm personality and sense of humor. He balances his time well by excelling in a heavy course load filled with advanced placement classes and he also participates in various school and community activities, including our school’s academic teams which provide a structured yet fun forum for competition and learning. Allen is a well rounded individual who clearly enjoys a challenge.

Overall, Allen exhibits the qualities of a leader as well as a great scientist who has had ample research experience and excels academically in challenging, college level courses. He is an intelligent, well-rounded, and grounded individual who challenges himself and actively seeks new opportunities and experiences. He has the determination, maturity, and intelligence to succeed in any endeavor and always maintains a positive attitude. His academic and personal achievements show that he is committed to his education and will work hard to achieve his goals. He exudes confidence and has a vivid, outgoing, and friendly personality that allows him to get along with others very well in any setting. I admire him for his intelligence, sincerity, honesty, and integrity and am impressed by his discipline as an independent learner. He is a highly motivated individual with a thirst for knowledge. Allen Cheng would truly be a superior addition to the student body at Harvard.

Sincerely,

Cherryl Vorak

AP Chemistry, Chemistry Honors Teacher

 

The letter here is very strong for a multitude of reasons. First, the length is notable – most letters are just a page long, but this is nearly two full pages, single spaced. This is pretty rare, since teachers often have to write dozens of letters a year. It's clear she's interacted with me a lot, cares a lot about supporting me, and is willing to put in the work to do so.

The structure is effective: first Miss Vorak talks about my academic accomplishments, then about my personal qualities and interactions, then a summary to the future. This is a perfect blend of what effective letters contain. She highlights my most important extracurricular activities and awards (you can read more about it here in my Complete college application).

At the detail level, her diction and phrasing are specific and supportive. She makes my standing clear with precise statements: “youngest student…top excelling student among the two sections” and “one of twenty students in the nation.” She’s clear about describing the effort I put in, like studying college-level chemistry and studying independently.

When describing my personality, she’s exuberant and fleshes out a range of dimensions: “conscientious, motivated and responsible,” “exhibits the qualities of a leader,” “actively seeks new experiences,” “charismatic,” “balanced individual with a warm personality and sense of humor.” You can see how she's really checking off all the qualities colleges care about and corroborating her ratings.

Overall, Miss Vorak’s letter perfectly supports my application – my love for science, my overall academic performance, and my personality. The last part is especially important - she adds much more color beyond my A in AP Chemistry. This letter was important to complement the overall academic performance and achievements shown on the rest of my application.

Let's go to my second Common App teacher recommendation.

 

Curious about what my college application looked like, including personal essays, grades, test scores, and extracurriculars?

You're in luck - I've published my ENTIRE college application here. This includes my complete Common Application, teacher recommendations, counselor recommendation, and Harvard supplement.

This application got me into every school I applied to, including Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, and more.

Check out how Miss Vorak's letter complemented my entire college application and my Personal Narrative.

 

 

Teacher Letter #2: AP English Language Teacher

My second teacher Mrs. Swift was another favorite. A middle-aged, experienced English teacher, I would describe her as “fiery,” in a good way. She was passionate, always trying to get a rise out of students in class discussions. She was challenging as a teacher and grader, and I always wanted to impress her. Emotionally she was a reliable source of support for students.

First, the teacher evaluation from the Common App:

 

How long have you known this student and in what context?

2 years, AP student.


What are the first words that come to your mind to describe this student?

(blank)

List the courses you have taught this student, noting for each the student's year in school (10th, 11th, 12th) and the level of course difficulty (AP, accelerated, honors, IB, elective, etc.)

11th Grade AP English

 

Please write whatever you think is important about this student, including a description of academic and personal characteristics. We are particularly interested in the candidate’s intellectual promise, motivation, maturity, integrity, independence, originality, initiative, leadership potential, capacity for growth, special talents, enthusiasm, concern for others, respect accorded by faculty, and reaction to setbacks. We welcome information that will help us to differentiate this student from others.

(blank)

 

Ratings

Compared to other college-bound students in his or her secondary school class, how do you rate this student in terms of:

 Below AverageAverageGood (above average)Very Good (well above average)Excellent (top 10%)Outstanding (top 5%)One of the top few encountered in my career
Creative, original thought       
Motivation      
Self-confidence       
Independence, initiative      
Intellectual ability      
Academic achievement      
Written expression of ideas     ✓  
Effective class discussion     ✓  
Disciplined work habits     ✓  
Potential for growth     ✓  

 

You can see right away that her remarks are terser. She didn’t even fill out the section about “first words that come to mind to describe this student.”

You might chalk this up to my not being as standout of a student in her mind, or her just getting tired of recommendation letter requests every year.

In ratings, I earned three of the “one of the top in my career” for "Motivation," "Independence, initiative," and "Intellectual ability." The rest are marked as Outstanding (top 5%).

These are overall great ratings, but not as universally "top ever" compared to my AP Chemistry teacher.

There are a few explanations for this. As a teacher’s career lengthens, it gets increasingly hard to earn this mark. Since Mrs. Swift was a lot older than Miss Vorak, she had run through a ton of students already, which makes it harder to be one of the top few ever encountered.

I probably also didn’t stand out as much as I did to my Chemistry teacher – most of my achievement was in science (which she wasn’t closely connected to), and I had talented classmates. Regardless, I did appreciate the 3 marks she gave me.

Now, the letter. Once again, as you read this letter, think: what are the hundreds of interactions, in the classroom and outside, that would have led to a letter like this?

 

 

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

 

Overall, this letter is very strong. It’s only one page long, but she spends a lot more time on my personal qualities. She writes with her characteristic flair:

“In other situations where students would never speak their minds, he showed no hesitation to voice questions, thoughts, and ideas.”

“controversial positions often being the spark that set off the entire class”

“ability to take the quiet and shy student and actively engage”…”went out of my way to partner him with other students who needed”

“strength of conviction”…”raw, unbridled passion”…”He will argue on any topic that has touched a nerve.”

These comments support my personality strongly. I lean more towards an irreverent, straightforward personality, not being afraid to speak my mind. While this came across in my personal essays and application, an experienced teacher vouching for this adds so much more weight than just my writing it about myself.

Again, this impression was built up over a year of her teaching me. It wasn't just one time I stopped by after class. It was continuous participation in class discussions, strong performance throughout the year, and likely observations of me when I didn't know she was even looking.

With my two letters in mind, let's end with advice for how you can get the best college rec letters possible.

 

 

How You Can Get the Best Recommendation Letters from Your Teachers

By now, I've repeated my most important advice for you a few times. The important thing is that the advice sticks in, and that you actually practice it.

The best recommendation letters for students gush about your personal qualities and why that makes you the promising beacon of the future.

You can't trick a teacher into writing a strong letter for you. This is the wrong attitude to have, and most teachers will be able to sniff out insincerity. Don't think that you can just stop by after class three times and get the teacher to be your buddy.

Instead, your teacher's impression of you is built up over hundreds of interactions - in class discussions, in group projects, in your homework, during presentations, when arguing about test scores, and even when you think she's not listening.

If you honestly like learning and are an enthusiastic, responsible, engaging student, a great recommendation letter will follow naturally. The horse should lead the cart.

 

 

With all this in mind, here are strategies for how you can build great relationships with your teachers and get super strong letters along the way:

  • Starting sophomore year, identify 2-3 teachers each year you get along with. Have at least one in math/sciences, and another in the other subjects. You won't get letters from all of them, but you do want backups in case your top choice writers don't work out.

  • Prepare well for class discussions, and don't be afraid of sounding dumb. Speak your mind and your teacher will remember it. As a teaching assistant in college and grad school, I can tell you firsthand how annoying it is to ask the class a question and have no one respond. Prep beforehand and show that you're one of the few students who actually cares about learning.

  • In your interactions with teachers, focus on improving yourself and learning, not on getting a better grade. This applies to talking about grading, group projects, and learning what's on a test. Students who grovel for extra points on a test are really annoying. In contrast, students who try to figure out where their weaknesses are and how to improve for the future are really fun to work with.

  • Try to make the teacher's life easier. If you can help the teacher save time, she'll love you for it. This might mean helping out classmates who are struggling, sharing notes with the class, or noticing problems she's having and trying to fix them.

This will take sustained effort and energy, but it's the most reliable way to get very strong recommendation letters. Even more, you'll likely have a lot more fun in school, and you'll build a strong relationship with an adult mentor who can teach you a lot.

For a lot more detailed advice like this on how to interact with teachers earnestly, check out my How to Get a 4.0 GPA and Better Grades guide.

 

Keep Reading to Build Your College Application

Do you like my advice in this guide? Great - I've written a lot more to help you build the strongest college app possible.

Want more recommendation letter samples? Check out 4 more excellent recommendation letters from teachers.

 

How to Get a Perfect SAT Score/How to Get a Perfect ACT Score

Do you feel like your SAT/ACT score is lower than what your top colleges are looking for? As someone who got a perfect score on the SAT and ACT, I learned important strategies to notice your weaknesses and drill to improve them. Read these guides to boost your SAT/ACT scores.

Also, check out my series on getting perfect scores in each of the sections on the SAT/ACT:

SAT 800 Series:Reading | Math | Writing

ACT 36 Series:English | Math | Reading | Science

 

How to Get Into Harvard and the Ivy League

Aiming for a top school like Harvard, Stanford, Yale, or Ivy League-level schools? Your impression of what they're looking for might be COMPLETELY wrong.

In this guide, you'll learn:

  • why colleges exist, and what that means for what students they're looking for
  • why being well-rounded is the path to rejection
  • what an application Spike is, and why it'll get you into every college you apply to
  • how to develop a Spike of your own

If you're aiming for top tier colleges, this is a must read for you.

 

How to Get a 4.0 GPA and Better Grades

Do you feel like you're struggling to balance a rigorous courseload with good grades? You're not alone - this is a challenge for many high school students nationwide.

In this guide, I'll tell you everything I know about how to get good grades. This includes mindset and psychology; study habits you need to have; and individual subject strategies. Even if you're not aiming for a 4.0 GPA, this is well worth the read - you'll learn something that can save you hundreds of hours of study time.

 

Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

 

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