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Recommendation Letters 101

Updated: Jun 3, 2022

The Ray and Maria Stata Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

It is a busy and stressful time for graduating year 12 students as they sit their final leaving exams. Those students also looking to apply to US universities have an added level of stress as US application deadlines fast approach.

The US university application process assesses students from a holistic perspective including recommendation letters. These recommendations, usually provided by careers adviser, head of house and/or a teacher, hold substantial weight in final admission decisions. In Australia year 12 leaving exams are the determining factor in where a student may be offered admission – in the US, admission decisions are made based on the application itself which includes essays and/or personal statements, academic marks of courses from grades nine through 12, an SAT or ACT test score, extra and co curricular involvement, and recommendation letters.

Letters of recommendations allow admission committees to gain further insight on the student as described by another person. Debbie Shively, former Assistant Director of Admissions at a US College and Founder of Internationally Educated a business which assists students through the complex identification and admission process said ‘Recommendation letters provide the admission committee an alternative perspective of a student both inside and outside of the classroom. Many times this additional information is what we needed to ensure the student is a good fit for the institution’ Admission committees are looking to these recommendations for additional information about the applicant not found in other components of the application. A strong letter will include anecdotes to support facts whenever possible, and will tell a story of the student’s academic achievements which may include the student’s learning styles, maturity and examples to overcome challenges. The individual letters should be academic in nature but reflect as much personal character of which the referee has first-hand knowledge. Recommendation letters are usually between 300-500 words in length.

If you have been asked to write a letter of recommendation, follow the principles below, as sourced by MIT Admissions:

  • 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 him/her?

  • How does the applicant interact with teachers? With peers? Describe his/her 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 he/she fit into the MIT community and grow from the MIT experience?

  • Has the applicant ever experienced disappointment or failure? If so, how did he/she react?

  • Are there any unusual family or community circumstances of which we should be aware?

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is consistently ranked in the top 10 US Institutions and has an admission rate of just under 8 percent – i.e. they accept less than 8 per cent of the applicants which apply each year! Below are outstanding recommendation letters for very strong candidates and an excellent model for any letter you may need to write.

Teacher Recommendation:

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.

Careers Adviser/Head of House Recommendation:

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. She seeks responsibility. Oh, for more such 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.

Source: MIT admissions

From a student’s perspective, it is important to confirm your nominated referees are able to comprehensively write using the above guide. To assist referees in their writing, students should provide a list of extra and co curricular activities in which they have participated from grade nine through 12 keeping in mind quality over quantity.

Studying in the US will change your life. Let us help you through the complex application process. Contact us now as client spaces are limited.

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