How to write an academic letter of recommendation

Writing an academic reference letter sounds easy, but the strength of your endorsement can mean the difference between acceptance or rejection by a student's chosen school. Learn what to include—and when to decline writing such a letter at all.

by Ronna L. DeLoe, Esq.
updated May 11, 2023 ·  3min read

Well-written and enthusiastic academic letters of recommendation go a long way toward helping students get into their chosen schools. These letters, also called academic reference letters, enhance a student's college or graduate school application by providing the selection committee with personalized insight into the prospective student's character—something that can't be found in test scores and transcripts.

woman in brown jacket writing in notebook

Guidelines for academic references

As a teacher, professor, or academic advisor, you want to ensure that your letter accomplishes its purpose: helping your student get into the college or advanced-degree program of their choice. There are many guidelines for writing an academic reference, with some of the more important points being that:

  • You know the student well enough to write about their positive traits
  • You're enthusiastic about the student's abilities and academic progress
  • You don't accept this task if you barely know the student or can't give a glowing recommendation
  • You know some anecdotes about the student to support their outstanding achievements
  • You're willing to write more than a few paragraphs but not more than two pages in length
  • You can tailor your letters to the schools where the applicants are applying
  • You follow the guidelines required for each school
  • You're able to write the letter within the deadline

How to write a letter of recommendation for a student

To make them persuasive and effective, letters of recommendation should be tailored for each individual student, although you can start each academic reference by using a template. Most guidelines and best practices for writing a letter of recommendation agree that the contents and format of a recommendation letter should include:

  • Using your school's or university's letterhead
  • The date, the recipient's address, and a salutation to a specific person rather than “to whom it may concern"
  • A paragraph wholeheartedly recommending the student for the specific program or school
  • An explanation about how you know the student and how long or well you've known them
  • A paragraph or two discussing the student's academic strengths
  • An anecdote or two about how the student used their exceptional scholastic ability to create change or show leadership
  • At least a few sentences about the student's personal strengths, hobbies, and interests, some of which may pertain to the student's major
  • How the student will be an asset to the program or the university
  • A conclusion unequivocally endorsing the student and reiterating that the student's strengths will benefit the program or school
  • Your contact information, including the offer to provide more information if needed
  • A complimentary close such as “Best regards" or “Sincerely"
  • Your signature, with your typed name, title, and school or university underneath

Writing an academic letter of recommendation requires skillful choice of words and phrases, enthusiasm rather than a mundane endorsement, and thorough proofreading. Your letter can mean the difference between the student's acceptance or rejection.

It's up to you whether you want your student to participate in the letter-writing process. If you'd rather they don't participate and they insist, you can politely decline to write the letter.

Writing a scholarship reference letter

Although similar to recommendation letters, scholarship letters are for the specific purpose of helping a deserving student receive financial assistance to attend their desired school or program. When endorsing a student for a scholarship, follow the format for an academic recommendation letter, unless the student tells you the format is different.

Make sure you customize your letter by referencing the specific name of the scholarship and ensuring that your student has the proper qualifications, such as financial need or academic performance. Explain why the student deserves the scholarship and how they'll be an asset to the school.

Whether your academic letter of reference is written to assist a deserving student in being admitted to a program or receiving a scholarship, your endorsement should be honest and positive. If you have any doubts about being able to meet those standards, it's better to decline writing the letter.

Ready to start your Academic Letter of Recommendation? LEARN MORE
Ronna L. DeLoe, Esq.

About the Author

Ronna L. DeLoe, Esq.

Ronna L. DeLoe is a freelance writer and a published author who has written hundreds of legal articles. She does family … Read more

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of the author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.