The Freshman Path

Just another UMass Boston Blogs weblog

What Makes a College Letter of Recommendation Great


college letter of recommendationBeing out on the road I have the opportunity to visit my hometown and catch up with old friends. I had the pleasure of staying with some friends of mine, one of whom is a high school guidance counselor.  After a lovely evening of catching up over a delicious dinner, we found ourselves winding down over a pot of tea and talking business. Since of course, we are on two different sides of the table, we couldn’t help but ask about the application process through the eyes of the other.

What systems do you use? What does it look like when you upload a transcript on to Common App? How many schools are each of your students applying to?  

How do you process the application? How do you want the students to list the activities they are involved in? What do you look for when you are reviewing an application?

There, of course, wasn’t enough time to unravel all the mysteries of the process, but we did discuss a very interesting topic:

What Makes for a Good Great Letter of Recommendation?

She informed me that some of the institutions her students are applying to only accept one letter of recommendation. UMass Boston requires one letter, but often receives two or even three letters for each applicant. Although our application requirements do not limit the letters as other schools do, there are certainly letters that are more useful to me than others. So let’s talk about it.

The letters of recommendation as well as the essay are very important to the counselor reading the file. They should offer some insight as to who this applicant is who happens to have a 2.8 GPA and an 1100 on the SATs. These letters of recommendation tell us about the character of the student. Some students are naturally gifted and “just get it,” when it comes to classroom material and tests. Others struggle, stay late for extra help, and hand in extra credit projects just to get by.

When I look at the grades on a student’s transcript, that “D” in Advanced Placement Calculus does not say “Hey, Tania, by the way, Jake has a D because he sleeps through class and is too busy playing soccer and going out with his friends to do his homework.”

On the other hand the “D” also doesn’t say, “Jocelyn is struggling through Calculus because her mother passed away this summer and in addition to dealing with the loss emotionally,  she now works 30 hours a week to help support her family, and she often isn’t available to stay after class for extra help. But she is working with the teacher to retake her last test and hopefully boost her grade.” Yes, believe it or not, the transcript does not have these hidden notes. These notes come from the letters of recommendation, from your teachers, your guidance counselors, even your coaches and advisers.

Who Writes the Best Letter of Recommendation?

Believe it or not, the best letters do not always come from someone who is going to brag about you. A great recommendation comes from a person who can tell us who you are, what your challenges are, how you face these challenges, and what you are capable of. When I was in high school, I did not have  much of a relationship with my guidance counselor. She wrote me a generic letter where she filled in my GPA and class standing on the first line, and then filled in my activities on the next line, and so on.

When I was in high school, I was extremely dedicated not only to my honors and AP courses, but also to theater. I lived, breathed, and, if I had time to sleep, dreamed theater. So the person who knew me best and understood my capabilities inside and outside of the classroom was my theater teacher and director. Unlike the two paragraphs from my guidance counselor, my director wrote three pages about me. And it wasn’t bragging, it was more like a psychological and educational analysis of how I had developed academically and grown as an individual from my freshman year into my senior year.

I am not expecting every letter to have so much depth, nor do all students have the privilege to get to know a teacher or adviser so well and for such a long period of time.

But if there is someone out there who can offer us accurate insight about you, whether it is the adviser of your Italian club, or your physics teacher, then they are the person to ask for a recommendation.  And don’t be afraid to ask a teacher whose classes you don’t have the best grades in. Often times when I see a lower grade on a transcript I flip through the pages of the application in hopes of finding an essay or letter of recommendation that will explain why that grade is on the transcript and if the student is really trying.

So when the time comes (and if you are a junior in high school, the time is now), put some thought into who you ask to write a letter about you. Provide them with a cheat sheet reminding them about what you are involved in now and what your future plans are,  and give them plenty of time to put together a thoughtful recommendation for you. When you get it back, don’t forget to send them a thank you note for going out of their way to help you with your future educational plans!



  1. This is so helpful that I will share it with Juniors and Seniors who are preparing to attend college.

  2. Thank you for your insight.

  3. Very nice insight. My friend’s daughter will be entering her senior year of high school next year and will be doing the application process. This will come in handy for her. Thank you.

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