While you may have seen examples of really impressive recommendation letters, what about the really bad ones? What exactly do bad letters look like, and what makes them so subpar?
Bad recommendation letters can be hard to put a finger on, because they aren't necessarily critical or disparaging about a student. Instead, they might leave a poor impression because they come off as unenthusiastic, unspecific, or simply too short. The examples below represent letters that would do very little to help a student's college application and, worst case scenario, could even hurt it.
By knowing what weakens a letter or leaves a negative impression in the minds of admissions officers, you can make sure your letters don't contain any of these features. First up...
The Unenthusiastic Recommendation
Dear Admissions Committee,
I'm writing to recommend Jamie to your undergraduate program. As a student in my 11th grade English class, he performed well above average. Jamie is a hard worker and is well liked by his peers and teachers. I've been impressed with him as a student.
Jamie has a strength for discussing books, and he participated well in my class. In his group projects, Jamie listened to his peers and was respectful of their input. Along with his three classmates, he earned an A on a group presentation about the various types of conflict in Hamlet. Jamie is a conscientious student and rarely missed an assignment. With his strong effort and respectful attitude, Jamie leads by example.
Jamie took a variety of courses in high school and was especially interested in psychology and history. He balanced his time well, participating in both the Interact Club, and, in his sophomore and junior year, the track team. No one ever has a bad word to say about Jamie. He's an all around good kid.
I'm confident that Jamie will be an asset to whatever college he attends next year. He's a good student, kind friend, and was a pleasure to have in class. He has my recommendation. Please feel free to contact me for any further information at email@example.com.
This letter has positive things to say about Jamie, so what exactly makes it so bad?
The Break Down
This letter is fine, but it barely goes above the minimum to recommend Jamie. While Mr. Warm says that Jamie is respectful, conscientious, and a hard worker, he sounds completely unenthusiastic about him.
He neither reveals deeper insight into Jamie's character, nor uses excited language to highlight his points. Jamie's English teacher doesn't even qualify that he "highly" recommends him. His mediocre ranking of Jamie as "well above average" further suggests his lack of enthusiasm.
Besides the generic language that leaves little impact in the mind of the reader, this letter also contains some questionable phrases. By saying that Jamie "leads by example," his English teacher may be indicating a lack of concrete leadership positions at the school, whether on purpose or not.
Furthermore, by focusing on how others perceive Jamie, the teacher removes a lot of his own personal perspective from the letter. Admissions committees want letters from teachers who know a student well and can speak to his good qualities. A letter that seems distant and impersonal is less effective.
Even the example the teacher uses, of Jamie getting an A, is less personal because it refers to a group project. It neither highlights Jamie's individual skills, nor provides a very interesting story.
This letter provides little insight into Jamie's character or personal qualities. While the teacher says generally positive things, he doesn't sound too impressed with Jamie or like he took the time to write a strong letter. He doesn't have much specific to say about Jamie, so the recommendation letter does little to differentiate him from other applicants. Overall, this letter won't do much to help Jamie's application.
Another example of a bad recommendation letter is one that just presents facts and figures. For all intents and purposes, this kind of letter could be written by just about anyone with a copy of the student's resume.
This letter's almost all facts and figures.
The Resume Repeat
Dear Admissions Committee,
It is my pleasure to recommend Tabitha, who excelled in my junior year AP Biology class. A hard worker with an interest in the natural world, Tabitha earned an A for the course and received a 5 on her AP Biology exam. Most impressive to me is that she did all this while balancing her responsibilities as Class Treasurer, hospital volunteer, and literacy coach. Tabitha goes above and beyond with her activities and somehow succeeds in all of them.
As Class Treasurer, Tabitha organized fundraisers and raised over $2,000 for the junior year prom. She advertised events through the school and worked with students and faculty to organize attendance. Beyond this, she volunteers two days a week at the local hospital, where she spends time with patients and helps visitors navigate their way around. Tabitha doesn't just use her skills with people at the hospital; she also has worked with children for the past two years, helping them build their literacy skills. All this while juggling a full class schedule that included three AP classes.
Tabitha excels in and out of the classroom. She won the Tisch Library Award in sophomore year for academic achievement, and her impressive performance in my class earned her the 2014 Biology award. She was one of the top scorers in her class on the PSAT, and she earned a 4 and two 5's on her AP exams so far. Tabitha is a top student whose grades, awards, and involvements speak for themselves.
I highly recommend Tabitha for admission to your undergraduate program. She is an active student who will continue to contribute greats things to her college. Her achievement in school is all the more impressive considering her busy schedule and extracurricular and professional involvements. Please feel free to contact me with any questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Belabor Boarding School
At least Tabitha's letter sounds a little more enthusiastic than Jamie's. But it's still not especially strong. Let's look at exactly what makes it ineffective.
The Break Down
It sounds like Ms. Ration is impressed with Tabitha's accomplishments. Tabitha seems to be a highly achieving student with impressive grades and extracurricular involvements. However, admissions committees already know about all her grades, awards, and involvements from the rest of her application.
This letter repeats a lot of information that the admissions committee already has on file. Plus, by trying to include everything that Tabitha does, it actually says very little. It's all breadth and no depth. A strong letter would dive deeply into specific skills or qualities, rather than skimming over a lot of different points with a general overview.
A recommendation letter should personalize a student and give deeper insight into her intellectual capacity and character. It should be from a teacher who can highlight something specific about a student. Her science teacher may know little about Tabitha's work as a literacy coach. She could speak much more insightfully about Tabitha's skill for scientific inquiry and interest in medicine.
This letter also uses no anecdotes or examples to illustrate something meaningful about Tabitha, relying instead on facts and figures. Perhaps the most telling example of where the letter writer went astray is when she says that Tabitha's accomplishments "speak for themselves."
In fact, recommendation letters are required because grades and statistics don't fully speak for themselves. Recommenders are supposed to speak about a student in a revealing, meaningful way. They should help distinguish the student from other applicants and talk about her passions and motivations (in other words, why she does what she does).
Instead, this letter focuses on what Tabitha does. As a highly achieving student, Tabitha might be applying to a selective school along with lots of qualified applicants. They may share similar grades and accomplishments, so the recommendation letters are especially important for providing something beyond the resume.
Unfortunately, this letter doesn't do that. It could be written by almost anyone with a record of Tabitha's school and community involvement.
Finally, a recommendation letter that's too short immediately gives a bad impression to admissions officers. They can see right away that a teacher didn't spend much time on it.
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The Short Letter
Dear Admissions Committee,
It is my pleasure to recommend Ethan for admission to your college. I had Ethan in my 11th grade math class. He was a strong student, worked well with others, and impressed me with his consistent effort.
In addition to taking a challenging course load during junior year, Ethan took part in the Amnesty International Club and contributed to the school newspaper. He wrote a compelling article about the current state of civil rights in America.
Ethan has my strong recommendation for college. He's bright, motivated, and has strength of character. I'm sure he will do great things. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me at email@example.com.
Just by looking at it, you can see what makes this recommendation letter so weak. Besides its short length, what else makes it ineffective?
Is that it? Is there more on the back...?
The Break Down
Like the other two examples, this letter doesn't say anything bad about Ethan. But overall, it's lacking. For one thing, it's way too short. A recommendation letter should be a full page in length.
Second, the article mentions some of Ethan's strengths - his consistent effort, his newspaper writing, and his apparent interest in issues of human rights. But the short letter doesn't take time to delve into these qualities and paint a fuller picture of Ethan. The teacher mentions a compelling article about civil rights, but doesn't explain what it said or why Ethan was motivated to write it.
There are a few points here that could tell the reader a lot more about Ethan if the recommender had described them more fully. As it is, the letter offers little information or insight. As part of Ethan's application, it would be quickly forgettable.
Strong recommendation letters take time and thought to craft. Apart from what I already discusses, what other features weaken all three of these recommendation letter examples?
What Else is Wrong with These Letters?
Another thing that none of these letters do is customize to the college or program the student is applying to. Often, teachers provide one letter for students to upload to their Common Application and send off to all their colleges. While this is fine for the most part, it can strengthen an application if the letter is customized to the specific school, especially if it's a selective school.
If a student is applying to an Ivy League school like Harvard, then she should strive to make every aspect of her application as strong as it can possibly be. This includes obtaining recommendation letters that are customized to Harvard and attest to her ability to succeed in such an academically rigorous environment.
Again, the letters don't have to be customized, but it's a good idea for them to be if the school is especially competitive. It's more important that they are enthusiastic, use powerful language, and tell meaningful and memorable stories that reveal a student's unique qualities and help differentiate her from other applicants.
None of the above letters accomplish this, unfortunately. Whether you're a teacher writing a letter or a student getting one for your college applications, what can you do to avoid having a letter like the ones above?
This is a close call. Avoiding a bad recommendation letter doesn't have to be.
What Can You Do to Avoid a Bad Letter of Recommendation?
If you're writing recommendation letters for your students, make sure your letter isn't weakened by
- word choice that is lukewarm and could be made stronger
- unnecessary repetition of data from a student's resume
- a focus on academic ability without much mention of personal qualities
- statements not backed up with specific examples
- generic or cliche phrases.
As you revise your letter, be on the lookout for words that could be made stronger or examples that could be made more specific. If you find yourself in need of more information or material, talk to the student about her interests and goals and what qualities she hopes you'll highlight in her letter.
Students should share information with their recommenders, as well as let them know what would go into their ideal letter. If you're a student applying to a writing program, let your English teacher know that you'd love her to talk about your writing skills. If you're an aspiring future engineer, ask your physics teacher if she'll speak to your problem solving abilities. This helps your teacher make your letter more specific and effective.
As letters take time and effort to do well, students should ask their teachers early - especially ones who get slammed with recommendation requests senior year (English teachers tend to get a ton of requests). Both students and teachers alike need to put serious time and thought into their recommendation letters to get strong ones.
These references are a very important part of the college application. The best ones require planning, effort, and communication between students and their recommenders.
Now that you've read these examples of bad recommendation letters, check out these examples of strong reference letters.
For more on writing strong recommendation letters (that don't end up sounding unenthusiastic, repetitive, or uninformed), check out this in depth guide.
Do counselor recommendation letters differ from teacher recs at all? Read about how school counselors can write strong recommendation letters for the students on their caseload.
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Rebecca graduated with her Master's in Adolescent Counseling from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has years of teaching and college counseling experience and is passionate about helping students achieve their goals and improve their well-being. She graduated magna cum laude from Tufts University and scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT.