To Whom it May Concern: Tips for college letters of recommendation

August 29, 2013  

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — An online writing resource can help teachers, guidance counselors, religious leaders and volunteer supervisors with tips on how to write college letters of recommendation, say Purdue University experts.

"These letters bring the student to life by adding context to grades and test scores," said Mitch Warren, director of admissions. "Something we often see in letters of recommendation that isn't as helpful is just repeating information from the transcript. We prefer personal examples and an outside perspective such as how students overcame challenges and what sets them apart."

Dozens of tips on format and approach are available at Purdue's Online Writing Lab, which is known as OWL:

Teachers, counselors, coaches and other adults may see an increase in requests for letters of recommendation because of their growing value in the admissions process. They also are a requirement of the Common Application, which is the online application process used by more than 500 colleges and universities.

"These tips will be especially helpful, because sometimes representing a student's abilities and achievements can be difficult," says Linda Bergmann, director of the Online Writing Lab. "For example, using hyperbolic praise or vague emphasis can inject inaccuracy or inadvertently communicate criticism. A phrase such as 'to the best of my knowledge,' can have the unintended consequence of distancing yourself from the student, suggesting that you do not know them that well at all. And saying, 'after a slow start, he has moved from a high-risk student to a sure thing,' can be confusing. A sure thing can have different interpretations, so it is best to be specific with examples."

Some of the tips featured on OWL include:

* State your qualifications: You are a science teacher and the student is applying to an art program. Can you speak to the student's strengths that apply to the program of choice?

* Meet with the student to understand his or her career goals.

* Discuss with the student why they asked you for a recommendation. This can help provide insights and avoid generalizations in the letter.

* Give details and examples of how you know and work with the student.

* Balance praise and criticism. Any praise should be supported with examples.

Purdue's Online Writing Lab provides information on many aspects of writing, including grammar and mechanics, writer's block, style guides, and punctuation. It received more than 230 million visits last year. OWL also features advice from undergraduate admissions officers for high school students who are applying for colleges at The OWL will celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2014.

Writer: Amy Patterson Neubert, 765-494-9723, 

Sources: Mitch Warren, 765-494-1776,

Linda Bergmann, 765-496-2814, 

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