How to Write a Strong Letter of Recommendation for College

If you’re a college counselor, coach, teacher, or mentor looking to support your college-bound students, chances are you’ve been asked to write a strong letter of recommendation. Stand-out letters of recommendation can give students a serious leg-up during college admissions. According to a 2024 post from Admit Report, college admissions officers will read as many as than 50,000 applications per admission cycle for a given university.

With that much competition, it can take a lot to help your student stand out. So, what catches an admissions officer’s eye? Strong letters of recommendation.

In that same survey, admissions counselors said letters of recommendation were more important to them than a student’s extracurricular activities, AP test scores, or even class rank. That means it’s worth putting a little extra effort into your next letter. Here’s how to write a college letter of recommendation that will blow the admission committee’s socks off. 

Need more help? Check out Going Merry’s high school counselor hub for email templates, how-to’s, and other resources.


The introduction is one of the most important parts of your letter. This is your chance to hook the reader and draw them in. Here’s how to ace one common recommendation letter format. 

1. Open with a formal salutation

Your letter of recommendation should begin like any business letter. Keep in mind that, while common, “Dear Sir or Madam,” can feel gendered or outdated. “To Whom It May Concern,” is acceptable but can feel a little impersonal. If you can, find out the name of the admissions director. If you can’t find a direct contact, simply address your letter to “Dear Admissions Counselor.” Be sure to type on your official letterhead to give your letter an even more professional look.  

2. Introduce the student 

Start your first paragraph with a sentence or two explaining how long you’ve known the student and in what capacity. Were you their baseball coach, English teacher, or high school counselor? Explain how you met. If possible, use a little descriptive detail to bring this anecdote to life, and mention your first impressions of the student. It’s usually standard to use the student’s first and last name upon first mention, then refer to them by their first name going forward.

3. Establish a personal connection 

Next, add a sentence or two demonstrating your connection to the student. This is one of the most crucial parts of writing a strong college letter of recommendation. Admissions officers are looking for endorsements from people who really know the candidate well. If you don’t have a personal connection to the student that goes beyond simply being their teacher or counselor, that’s okay. Remember, you can always say no and encourage them to ask someone else to write their letter instead.

One of the best ways to establish this connection and help a student stand out is to tell a memorable story that illustrates their character. Include an example of a time when their qualities or skills really shone. Maybe this is a story about how they stepped up in a leadership position, reacted well in a moment of success or failure, or went out of their way to help another student. Make sure it’s specific and personalized.


Use this section to paint a picture of this young person and explain what makes them stand out. 

1. Highlight the student’s achievements  

Use the next paragraph to mention the student’s top accomplishments. Keep in mind that the admissions officer will already have the student’s resume and GPA in front of them, so don’t waste time listing a bunch of achievements. 

Instead, mention a specific example or short anecdote that might add color to a prominent resume item. For example, the admissions officer probably already knows that your student is a varsity basketball player or a debate team captain. But if this is the hardest-working student-athlete you’ve ever coached or the most brilliant debater the school has ever seen, that’s worth a mention.

Another tip: While it can be helpful to use a letter template, try to avoid using the same formula for every student on your list. College admissions officers are often assigned to a particular region. That means the same person will likely end up reading the same high school teachers’ or counselors’ letters year after year. If your letters are practically the same for each student, the admissions officer will notice.

2. Speak to the student’s character 

Now that you’ve mentioned a student’s successes, it’s time to explain what personal qualities led to such success. Try to make this part of the letter flow naturally from the previous section. 

This is your chance to talk about the student’s hard work, magnetic personality, or aptitude for learning. That said, it’s best to avoid generic statements and clichés. The phrases “great work ethic,” and “strong team spirit” show up on thousands of letters each year. Instead, use concrete examples and descriptive detail to bring your student’s character traits to life. 

Instead of “He’s thoughtful,” say “He’s capable of discussing even the most complex topics with humility and nuance.” Instead of “She’s intellectually curious,” say, “She thinks like a scientist, and over the last four years, she’s turned in such thoughtful lab assessments that sometimes I worried she was teaching me more than I was teaching her.” It’s that kind of vivid description and personalization that catches the attention of college admissions counselors. 

Also be mindful of racial biases and gender biases in letter writing. If you’re not mindful, these unconscious biases can sneak into your letter and negatively color the admissions officer’s view of your student.

3. Provide context 

Praise doesn’t mean much without context. Be sure to benchmark your student’s achievements against those of their peers. This kind of context gives college admissions counselors a better understanding of the student’s abilities. It will be easier for them to make admissions decisions when they can clearly evaluate a student’s performance relative to others. 

So, for example, a weak recommendation letter might state that a student “writes well and participates often in class.” A strong recommendation letter might say something like, “I’ve taught more than 2,000 students in my time as an educator and I’ve never met someone with such a knack for the written word. Many young people struggle to describe their inner world in vivid detail, but Henry succeeded in capturing both me and his classmates with his thoughtful, relatable prose.”


Your final paragraph is your chance to remind your reader why this student is so unique and deserving of a spot at this particular school. Be sure to follow these general guidelines:  

1. End on a positive note 

Your final paragraph should provide a brief summary of your recommendation so far and express why you believe so strongly in this particular student’s likelihood of success. It’s standard to include your contact information in the conclusion in case the admissions office has any further questions for you. This could include your email or office phone number — whatever you’re comfortable providing.   

2. Use a formal closing

As with your opening, the closing of your letter should be professional and businesslike. “Best Regards,” is a common closing, though “Sincerely,” or “Respectfully,” will also work.

Guidelines to follow as you write 

Writing a strong letter of recommendation isn’t just about what you write – it’s how you write, too. Here are some guidelines to keep in mind.

  1. Keep it relatively brief: The audience you’re writing for has to evaluate countless recommendation letters just like the one you’re writing. Be respectful of their time and try to keep your letter to around one page in length.
  2. Be honest and balanced: While it’s important to emphasize the student’s positive qualities, it’s just important to be honest and balanced in your assessment. Avoid exaggerations or misleading statements.
  3. Tailor the recommendation to the college: Do some research on the colleges the student is applying to and customize your letter accordingly. Highlight traits or experiences that align with the particular college’s values or programs. This shows that you’ve taken the time to understand the student’s goals and aspirations.
  4. Avoid cliches: Steer clear of overused phrases and generic statements. Instead, provide original and thoughtful insights about the student.
  5. Use professional language and tone: The admissions process is serious business. Maintain a professional tone throughout the letter and use appropriate language. Avoid slang or informal expressions.
  6. Proofread and edit: Take the time to review and edit your letter carefully. Check for any spelling or grammatical errors, and ensure that the letter flows smoothly and is well-organized. Consider asking a colleague to proofread it when you’re done.
  7. Follow the guidelines: If the college or university provides specific guidelines or requirements for the letter of recommendation, make sure to follow them closely. This may include details on formatting, submission methods, or specific questions to address.
  8. Give yourself enough time to write: Writing a college letter of recommendation can take hours, days, or weeks depending on who you are and your relationship to the student. Give yourself plenty of time to sit down, write a draft, and revisit it to make sure it’s polished enough to submit. 

Support your students with Going Merry 

Letters of recommendation are one of the most critical parts of the college application process. That’s because the rest of a college application is pretty dry. Grades and ACT scores only say so much about a person, and colleges want to see more than just academic performance. 

The best students are born leaders with courage, drive, and personality. A good letter can bring your student to life for an admissions committee and even help sway their decision. 

As a high school counselor, you may write dozens — if not hundreds — of recommendation letters each year. Fortunately, Going Merry can help take the busywork off your plate so you focus on what matters. 

With Going Merry’s high school counselor resource hub, you can find everything from free email templates and financial aid lesson plans, to thousands of scholarships sorted by amount, location, and eligibility requirements. Sign up now or schedule a demo to find out how Going Merry can streamline your workflow. 

Disclaimer: This blog post provides personal finance educational information, and it is not intended to provide legal, financial, or tax advice.


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