3 Sample Letters of Recommendation for College Admissions

Bonus Material: College Letter of Recommendation checklist

Applying to competitive universities this coming fall? Perhaps you’ve already put in the hard work on your grades, test scores, and even your college essays. But you want to make sure that you also do everything you can to improve the quality of your letters of recommendation. 

Many students think of these as something they have no ability to affect, but the truth is you can do a lot to improve your letters of recommendation. And it matters: having stand-out letters of recommendation can set you apart from other applicants. 

At PrepMaven, we’ve guided thousands of students to acceptances at elite universities. Over that time, we’ve developed a proven system for navigating college admissions. In this guide, we’ll cover 3 sample letters of rec, discuss what makes a good letter of recommendation, and explain what you can do to ensure you have one. 

Below, you can download a sample letter of recommendation so you know what kind of work it takes to get one. In the meantime, keep reading to learn more about how you can maximize your chances of acceptance by improving your letter of recommendation. 

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3 Sample Letters of Recommendation for College
How Can You Improve Your Letters of Recommendation for College?
How Much Do College Recommendation Letters Matter?
What Makes a Good Letter of Recommendation for College?
Who to Ask for College Recommendation Letters
When to Ask for College Recommendation Letters
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Let’s start by taking a look at 3 excellent sample letters of recommendation, each of which we’ll break down briefly. Look at these letters carefully, and think about what you can do to ensure your letters look like this. 

Sample Letter 1

Dear Admissions Committee, 

As Lila’s eleventh grade AP Language teacher, I’m eager to take this opportunity to convey what makes her such an exceptional student and classmate. 

Her academic record in my class speaks for itself, but what I’d like to highlight is the uniquely passionate and incisive nature of her class contributions. I still remember (though this was last year) a class discussion of Martin Dressler by Steven Millhauser. While many students contributed meaningfully, I still distinctly recall Lila’s vociferous and insightful argument that Dressler’s character embodied everything wrong with the acquisitive, me-first mindset of deregulated business. Not everyone agreed, of course, but the energy behind her contribution sparked an intense class discussion that was one of the best of the year. Perhaps no less important was Lila’s openness to hearing other students’ opinions, even ultimately allowing her own perspective to change.

That moment is indicative of what Lila brings to the classroom environment daily: passion, insight, and open-mindedness. 

While I would’ve been thrilled to hear that Lila plans to study English in college, I’m equally impressed by how detailed and invested she is when she speaks about her plans to major in Economics. When she spoke to me about the importance of understanding rhetoric and narrative when looking at economic crises, it became clear to me that she’s the kind of student able to seamlessly integrate her interests into the study of the things that fascinate her. 

Even though I’ve taught countless students, I can say that few have made such an impact on the energy and depth of classroom discussion as Lila has. I’m confident that any university will benefit from her presence as a thinker, writer, and peer. 

Sincerely,

———-

There are three key things to notice with this first sample. 

  • First, it references a specific way that the student had an effect on the life of the classroom.
  • Second, it connects that instance in class with who Lila is overall as a student and thinker. 
  • Third, it connects both of these elements with who Lila will be in college, and with what she wants to pursue. 

Combining these three factors is what makes an excellent letter of recommendation. It shows the college that this student really had an impact on the class and the teacher. Importantly, it goes far beyond the generic letter of recommendation, standing out from the rest. 

Sample Letter 2

Dear Admissions Officers, 

From the first week of my AP Biology class this year, it was clear how much Sanjit loved the material. During each of our class discussions, he’d raise questions that went beyond just clarification, connecting our subject matter with real-world issues he’d been following. While most students were content to take notes and answer the questions I posed, Sanjit was always looking to explore the links between what was in the textbook and what was happening in the wider world, whether in politics or in new studies on human health and longevity he’d been following. 

What most impressed me beyond his drive and desire to explore was how committed he was to helping other students find that same passion. During our labs this past year, Sanjit always prioritized helping his group members–and even the members of other groups–fine-tune their experiments. Indeed, during especially complex labs, I’d often find myself helping one group while another turned to Sanjit for assistance. 

He never did this to show off or prove something: what Sanjit exuded was a real passion and love for the material. In our class discussions, labs, and optional after-school review sessions, he constantly sought to use what we learned as the foundation for broader, more systemic explorations, even mentioning his desire to conduct independent research over the next summer. 

It really is a pleasure to hear that Sanjit plans to continue pursuing his talent for biology and to follow that talent all the way to medical school. While I’m not sure if his plans will change, I can attest to the fact that he entered my class already dedicated to exploring how he can make an impact on human health, and that I’ve rarely seen students so capable of bridging the gap between the textbook and the real world. 

Wherever he goes, whatever he does, Sanjit will make an incredible contribution to the classroom and the lab. 

Sincerely, 

——-

This second letter addresses each of the same three things as the first: specificity, character, and bigger picture. 

While the focus may be different, the ultimate upshot is clear: Sanjit is a student who impressed his teacher so much that she remembers specific ways he went above and beyond in the class. 

Note that it isn’t just about what Sanjit does for himself: the letter makes a point of showing how Sanjit was always there to help other students (without being a know-it-all or teacher’s pet). 

Sample Letter 3

To whom it may concern, 

Hearing that William plans to study French was tremendously gratifying. While I’m happy anytime one of my students plans to continue their French study at the college level, William was a special case. From what I know of his academic success, he excelled in most subjects, and I know he was quite torn between what field he really wanted to pursue. I never push my students one way or another, but I can tell you that William is the kind of student who will profoundly change every French class he enters. 

His language ability is, of course, fantastic, but that isn’t what makes him a great French student. During our classes, he showed a real fascination with the history, culture, and especially literature of Francophone countries. While most students saw the books and poetry we read in AP French as ways of learning the language, William always wanted to explore the texts themselves. In particular, he was fascinated by how the study of French language was connected with the history of French colonization. Reading The Stranger by Camus, William was the only student in class to quickly see the text’s connections to the French occupation of Algeria. He quickly became interested in the complexities inherent in speaking the language of an occupying country, and threw himself into research outside the classroom that he’d frequently integrate into our discussions. 

The short essay he wrote on our final exam was one of the best I’ve read in twenty years of teaching, especially in his ability to explore sophisticated and nuanced ideas in a foreign language. It’s clear to me that William doesn’t just have the technical facility to learn and study French language and culture: he has that rare creative instinct that allows him to make wholly original contributions to the field. 

Sincerely, 

You can certainly see the pattern by now: specificity, character, and big picture all come together to paint a picture of this student as a uniquely intelligent and capable scholar. 

You might notice that every one of these letters ends by articulating that this student isn’t just smart: they’re driven, they’re original, and they stand out from the rest of the intelligent students these teachers have had. 

If you want a letter like one of these–and you should–you might be wondering how you can possibly affect what your teachers write about you. The good news is that you can: read on below to see how you can help your teachers improve the letters of recommendation they write for your college applications. 


You might think this sounds strange: after all, you’re not writing your letters of recommendation, and in most cases you won’t even see them. 

So, how can you do anything to improve them? It all has to do with what information you give to your letter of recommendation writers. 

Many students think that just politely asking a teacher for a college letter of recommendation is where the process begins and ends. But if you don’t give your teacher specific information, you’re very likely to get a generic letter of recommendation. 

It’ll probably say nice things: that you’re a good student, that you excel in class, that you’re dedicated and always pay attention, and so on. 

Can you imagine how many times college admissions officers at large universities or elite colleges read phrases like that? (Hint: too many!) No matter how positive the letter is, it needs to be unique and specific if you want admissions committees to remember a word of it!

So, what can you do to help your recommendation letter writers produce better letters? Give them some personal, specific information! 

  • Ask your teacher to sit down for a short conversation before they begin writing your letter. Yes, it could be awkward, but we guarantee you that it’ll pay off! 
  • Talk honestly with the teacher about what you gained from their class.
    • Were there concepts that really stood out to you? 
    • Did they help you overcome a challenge?
    • Did they open your eyes to something new that stuck with you? 
  • Connect this with what you hope to study in college.
    • Did their class influence your choice of major or career?
    • If not, did the class affect how you see yourself as a student and thinker?
    • Can you find a connection between your major and the teacher’s class?

Not only will your teacher love hearing this (flattery always works!), but it’ll give them ideas for things they could mention in their letter. Instead of just talking about what a good student you are, they can draw on specific examples that you bring up in your conversation. 

Another option is to simply send the recommendation letter writer a short email where you describe why you’re asking them for a letter and what you gained from the class. 

The more specific you are, the easier it’ll be for them to write you a great letter!


The key to a strong college application is understanding the 3 pillars of a successful college application. In a nutshell, these are the three key elements by which admissions committees will evaluate you: 

  1. Academic achievement
  2. Extracurricular distinction
  3. Character and personal qualities

While these overlap a little bit, here’s an easy way to understand them. 

Academic achievement is conveyed by your grades, test scores, and the rigor of your curriculum. 

Extracurricular distinction is conveyed by your achievements in the various activities you’ve been involved with. 

Character is conveyed in your essays and letters of recommendation. 

Often, it’s character that makes the difference between a good application and a great one–especially at top tier universities like Ivies!

Note that the letter of recommendation is not there to highlight your academic achievement. Why? Because college admissions committees already have your grades and transcript! 

Instead, the recommendation letter should highlight your personal attributes. What kind of student and classmate are you? How do you contribute to the intellectual life of a school? What makes you the kind of person a professor would want to have in their class?

For a successful college application, it’s crucial that all three pillars come together. Because character is primarily conveyed in your essays and recommendation letters, you don’t have many opportunities to really convey this to elite college admissions committees. 

The data bears this out. By looking at the Common Data Set for elite universities, we identified how elite colleges like Princeton prioritize letters of recommendation. 

Each school ranks the elements of a college application in one of four categories: 

  1. Very important
  2. Important
  3. Considered
  4. Not considered

At Princeton, for example, the letters of recommendation are considered “very important,” just like test scores and grades!

At Yale, letters of recommendation are also considered “very important,” whereas standardized test scores are only “considered.” 

At Dartmouth, letters of recommendation are, once again, considered “very important.”

Are you picking up on the pattern yet? It might be easy to think of college recommendation letters as a tiny part of your application, but nearly every elite university considers letters of recommendation a very important part of your application! 


So, with all that in mind, we can now identify a little more precisely what makes a good college recommendation letter. 

A compelling letter of recommendation for college:

  • Avoids generic phrases and claims. 
  • Uses specific examples to explain how you stood out in the class. 
  • Focuses on your character, not your grades. 

The criteria for a strong letter of recommendation are simple, but in our experience, the vast majority of recommendation letters fail this test!

You won’t be able to see your recommendation letter, but you can affect what information your letter writer uses. Make sure to give them the kind of detailed, specific information that aligns with those three bullet points, focusing on instances where you really demonstrated your character in the class. 

If you want to read a sample of an excellent recommendation letter, take a look at the link below: it’s short, simple, and effective! 


Our advice here is simple, but serious. 

First, make sure you ask two teachers for your academic recommendation letters, then ask a third person to write your non-academic recommendation letter (which most schools also accept). 

This third recommender can be a bit more flexible: a supervisor at work, a sports coach, or the coach of an extracurricular activity you’re involved with are all great options. 

For the two academic recommenders, pick teachers who know you best. These should be teachers you’ve had recently: don’t pick a teacher from freshman year, since that really won’t be telling college admissions committees much about your character now. 

You should also pick teachers in subjects that align with your planned area of study. If you’re going all in on a STEM field, you’re best off picking teachers whose letters can support the narrative of you as an exceptional scientific and mathematical thinker. 

If you’re more humanities focused, you’ll definitely want one letter from a teacher whose class was writing-intensive. For the second letter, you might want to think about what complements your overall story. Don’t just go for another humanities class: think about what other interests drive you, and pick a teacher who can speak to that passion. 

More than anything, however, the critical question is which teachers can best speak to your personal attributes now. Pick those teachers, speak to them, and you’ll be likely to get a great recommendation letter like the one in our free sample here


The earlier, the better! It’s as simple as that. Once you’ve settled on your recommenders and had your conversations with them, ask them to draft your recommendation letters. 

You should do this before the summer break after your junior year. You’ll want your recommendation letters done by the end of summer. Once this pushes on into the fall, your letter-writers will be flooded with requests, and the quality of your letter will suffer. 

Speak to your teachers before summer vacation, and set a clear deadline while being respectful. Make it clear that you’ll be applying to programs early, and you’d really appreciate the letter being done by the end of the summer. 

In most cases, the teachers will appreciate this themselves. If a teacher tells you that’s impossible, make sure to respect their decision, and simply ask what timeline works for them. 

In general, however, set the end of summer as the deadline for your recommendation letters. 


If you’re already thinking about your college recommendation letters, that means you’re taking the college application process seriously. That’s great, but have you done everything you can to maximize your chances and perfect your application?

For a college application to work, every element of your academics, extracurriculars, and character has to come together. If your test scores, grades, or college essays are weak, you’ll need to put in the work to improve them. 

There’s no better way to do so than by working with one of our expert tutors. Our tutors range from exceptional undergraduates at Ivy League universities to graduate students with years of tutoring experience. 

Once you know what you need help with, we’ll pair you with the best tutor for your needs. All you have to do is contact us. 

In the meantime, read over the free sample letter of recommendation below, and take notes on what makes this so effective. 


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Mike

Mike

Mike is a PhD candidate studying English literature at Duke University. Mike is an expert test prep tutor (SAT/ACT/LSAT) and college essay consultant. Nearly all of Mike’s SAT/ACT students score in the top 5% of test takers; many even score above 1500 on the SAT. His college essay students routinely earn admission into their top-choice schools, including Harvard, Brown, and Dartmouth. And his LSAT students have been accepted In into the top law schools in the country, including Harvard, Yale, and Columbia Law.