How to Write Reference Letters for Students and Recent Grads

Letter on desk
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At many stages of their education, high school and college students require reference letters. At this point, a recommendation can really make the difference as to whether or not a student is accepted to their undergraduate or graduate school of choice, given the opportunity to volunteer for a non-profit organization, or lands a coveted corporate internship or job interview.

While an essay and transcript provide a lot of information, application materials may not give a full sense of a student's personality, drive, reliability, and academic skills. Reference letters from teachers, coaches, guidance counselors, and employers offer this necessary insight and information about a student's character. 

Tips for Writing a Letter of Reference

Are you ready to get started writing your own reference letter? Here is a checklist of “dos” and “don’ts” to consider.

What to Include in a Letter of Reference 

Letters of reference should include your name and contact information, an explanation of the context in which you know the student, and an evaluation of their specific skills and potential for success in their new endeavor (be it continuing education or a new job). Ideally, it should also provide a hearty endorsement of their candidacy.

Personalize Your Letters

While they provide a good starting point, remember that the most effective letters of recommendation are those that are highly personalized, providing unique examples of the student’s personality, accomplishments, and contributions within your classroom or to your organization. One size does not fit all when it comes to recommendation letters. It’s probably better to refuse to write a letter than to send one that is obviously the same template you use for all of your students.

Know When to Say “No”

Turn down a request if you anticipate that you would not feel comfortable writing a positive letter of support—this will give the student an opportunity to get a letter from a stronger advocate. It can be awkward to do this, but it's really better for the student in the long run.

You can always decline by saying that you simply do not have the time, or mention that you feel others might be able to provide a fuller, more personalized recommendation. 

Make Sure You Have Enough Information

If you do not know the student well, but still want to write the letter, you can request that the student provide you with background materials, including the student's resume, transcript, and a few paragraphs about goals and accomplishments. Busy teachers and guidance counselors who frequently receive requests to write recommendation letters may want to develop a questionnaire for students to fill out. 

You might also ask the student which other teachers he or she has asked for a reference, and then have a private chat with them about the student’s strengths and potential.

Before you write the letter, find out some specifics about why the student needs it. A recommendation letter for dental school differs greatly from a letter in support of an application to art school or a letter for a summer job opportunity.

Also, make sure you know the date the letter needs to be written by. If at all possible, write the letter within a day or two of receiving the request. This will avoid the letter being buried and forgotten under piles of essays or exams that need to be graded.

Sample Student and Recent Graduate References

The following sample reference letters are specifically designed for high school students, college students, and recent graduates. They include character references, references from teachers and employers, and graduate school references.

Sample Student Reference Letters

College Reference Letters

Reference Letter Templates

The following sample letter demonstrates how a teacher, coach, or guidance counselor might structure a letter of reference for a student.

Reference Letter Example #1 for a Student from a Teacher (Text Version)

Your Name
Your School’s Name
Your School’s Address
City, State Zip Code
Your Phone Number
Your Email Address

Date

Department of Admissions
State University
1234 Institutional Boulevard
City, State Zip Code

To Whom It May Concern:

It is with much enthusiasm that I am writing to you in support of Sharon Davis’s application to State University. In my capacity as a Chemistry Teacher at Anytown High School, I have known Sharon since her freshman year. An honors student and class valedictorian, she excelled in the three accelerated science classes she took with me, earning the department’s Science Award her senior year for her outstanding performance in Advanced Chemistry and Advanced Physics. 

Not only is Sharon a brilliant student, but she has also proven herself a leader in both school and civic organizations. She led our girls’ volleyball team to the state tournament three years running, twice earning MVP recognitions, and was actively involved in the school’s student government, French Club, and Debate Club. She also regularly volunteers with the American Cancer Society and Habitat for Humanity. 

Sharon’s ambition, to which she is perfectly suited, is to earn her undergraduate and graduate degrees in Organic Chemistry with the ultimate goal of becoming a medical research scientist. Having lost a sibling to cancer, she is passionate about contributing to the development of new cancer therapies.

Seldom have I had the privilege of working with a student of Sharon’s caliber – hers is a rare combination of academic brilliance complemented by strong social skills, self-motivation, and a determination to make a difference in our world. Therefore, I can wholeheartedly recommend her for admission to State University. 

Please let me know if you have any further questions about Sharon. I am available to talk by phone or email. Thank you.

Sincerely, 

Your Signed Name (hard copy letter)

Your Typed Name
Your Title

Reference Letter Example #2 for a Student (from an Employer)

You can use this sample as a model to write a reference letter. Download the template (compatible with Google Docs and Word Online), or read the text version below.

reference letter sample for students
 ©TheBalance 2018

Reference Letter Example #2 for a Student (from an Employer)

Your Name
Your Job Title
Your Company
Your Address
City, State Zip Code
Your Phone Number
Your Email Address

Date

Recipient Name
Recipient Title
Recipient Company
Recipient’s Company’s Address
City, State Zip Code

Dear Mr./Ms. Last Name,

I have had the pleasure of working directly with Anna Boston for the past four years as she served as a volunteer in the Physical Therapy department of St. Ansgar Hospital, where I hold the position of Manager. Anna has always demonstrated the highest level of respect and maturity as she interacts with patients and hospital employees alike. She is genuinely interested in helping others and provides services in a positive and caring manner. 

Anna has impressed me with her ability to work well under pressure without losing her composure. For example, one day a hospital patient was upset due to a delay in her appointment. The patient was very angry, but Anna was able to soothe the patient and calm her down, which was good for the patient as well as our physical therapy staff. 

In addition to her affable personality and professional demeanor, Anna also possesses specialized knowledge in physical therapy, sports medicine, and exercise thanks to her studies at Southern State University. It’s been a pleasure to watch her grow as a student and as a person.

Therefore, I heartily recommend Anna for any type of employment in the fitness and health fields. 

Please let me know if you have any further questions about Anna. I am available to talk by phone or email. Thank you.

Sincerely, 

Your Signed Name (hard copy letter)

Your Typed Name
Your Title