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Many universities ask for teacher recommendations along with the essays and test scores that accompany your college application. So, you may be asking yourself — what is a teacher recommendation? And what does a good one look like?

If you went to school in a country where teachers are accustomed to writing recommendations, the solution is simple. All you have to do is ask a teacher who knows you well. Keep in mind, of course, that it always helps to ask 1. early, and 2. nicely.

However, as an international student you may find that your teachers, though willing to help, truly do not know how to write a recommendation. In some cases, they may even ask you to write it for them (or a draft) so that they can edit it and put their names on it. Alternatively, they may ask for an example of what a good recommendation looks like. As the student, that means it’s up to you to help them out.

So, what is a teacher recommendation and how should it be written? Here are some basics to keep in mind.


Some universities may provide you with a specific form to fill out. However, most expect the teacher to produce a recommendation with no resources. Assuming that this is the case, your teacher will need to write it as a formal letter. That means that it should include the date, a proper greeting (Dear XXX – see how to start a formal letter), and a signature. If your teacher has letterhead stationary, they should use it.

Postive Content

First and foremost, the letter should only say positive things. This may seem obvious, but it’s worth stressing. A teacher who is not used to writing recommendations in the US-style might think that mentioning some of your weaknesses will make for a more “honest” or “well-rounded” letter. It won’t. Ask your teacher to keep the letter 100% positive.

Unique Anecdotes

Next, while it’s important to mention things like good grades and a positive attitude, the best recommendations also tell a short anecdote. This helps to put your qualities clearly on display and show that the teacher truly knows you. Consider the following examples:

  1. Maria is very smart and caring. She makes good grades and helps other students by tutoring them in math.
  2. When Maria realized that Marco, a special education student, was struggling to grasp basic algebraic concepts, she asked to have her seat reassigned so that she could sit beside him and help explain the lessons. As a result of her tutoring, she not only improved her own understanding of the material, but also helped Marco to improve his grades by nearly 25%.

While #1 is very positive, it is a sentence that thousands of teachers could write about hundreds of thousands of students. In contrast, #2 is unique to Maria. The university will be unlikely to hear that same story from any other applicant, so it will truly help Maria to stand out. In addition, rather than simply listing her qualities (smart, caring), the second example shows those qualities by telling a story.


Maija Wallace is a freelance writer for college admissions blogs. Her website is located at

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