College Recommendation Letter Do's and Don'ts

Woman with writer's block in an office with letters.
Oli Kellett / Stone / Getty Images

Recommendation letters provide college admission committees with information that may or may not be found in your application, including academic and work achievements, character references, and personal details that set you apart from other applicants. Essentially, a recommendation letter is a personal reference that explains why the school should recognize you, your achievements, and your character.

Good vs. Bad Recommendation Letters

A good recommendation letter is a must for any school application. During admissions, most colleges and universities—whether they're reviewing the applications of undergraduate or graduate students—expect to see at least one, and often two or three, recommendation letters for each applicant.

Just as a good recommendation letter can be an asset, a bad recommendation letter can be a hindrance. Bad letters don't do anything to supplement your application, and they may even make the difference between a well-rounded application and one that doesn't quite stand out among the droves of people who are applying to the same school.

Recommendation Letter Do's

Here are some do's to keep in mind when securing your recommendation letters:

  • Do choose someone who likes you and knows you well enough to write you a strong recommendation.
  • Do get recommendations from employers, professors, school administrators, and anyone else who is familiar with your work ethic.
  • Do ask for the recommendation in person rather than sending an email (unless this is not possible).
  • Do tell the letter writer why you need the recommendation letter. You don't want to end up with a work reference rather than an academic reference.
  • Do mention specific things that you would like to see included. If you want the letter to focus on your extensive leadership experience, you should say so.
  • Do proofread the letter; you don't want to submit a reference that is riddled with spelling or punctuation errors. 
  • Do send a thank you note afterward. This is a nice, thoughtful, and classy touch and will be remembered by your recommender.
  • Do keep multiple copies of the letter. You may need to use it again in the future, and you don't want to rely on your recommender to keep a copy.

Recommendation Letter Don'ts

There are also some big mistakes you should try to avoid when securing your recommendation letters:

  • Don't wait until the last minute. It takes time for a recommender to craft a strong letter. Secure letters of recommendation as soon as possible.
  • Don't ask someone to lie; you should aim for a truthful reference.
  • Don't ever forge signatures. Your recommendation letter must be genuine.
  • Don't choose someone only because of their title. It's more important to pick a recommender who knows you and your work well.
  • Don't choose someone who is a poor writer. Letter writing is a lost art; not everyone is good at expressing themselves in the written word.
  • Don't hesitate to get as many recommendation letters as possible. Choose the ones that show you in the best light.
  • Don't be surprised if the person you are asking for a recommendation letter asks you to write a letter that they will later modify and sign. This is a common practice.
  • Don't forget to say please and thank you. No one is entitled to a letter of recommendation; if you receive one, you should be grateful.