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What Makes a Good Letter of Recommendation?

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Youth leaders and pastors are often asked to write letters of recommendation for their students. Involvement in youth groups is an important time for students, and they develop relationships with the leaders those ministries, so it seems natural for them to ask for letters of recommendation from you. Yet, writing these letters can be anxiety inducing, because not everyone knows what makes a good letter of recommendation, and no one wants to be the reason a student didn't get into a program or college that's important to them. Here are some elements of a good letter of recommendation to get you started:

Get to Know the Student Better

How well do you actually know this student? Sometimes youth leaders or pastors are asked to write letters of recommendations for students they don't know very well. In order to write an accurate letter of recommendation, it may mean you need to take a few moments to get to know the student. Sit down with him or her for coffee. Talk about their interests, grades, accomplishments. Even if you think you know a student well, it helps to take a few moments to talk to them before sitting down to write the letter.

How Does This Student Stand Out?

In order to write a good letter of recommendation, you will need to include specifics on how this student stands out from others. What makes them different than all the other students applying. Sure, we know they're go-getters, but why? What specific things has this student done to set himself or herself apart from the others in your eyes.

Who Are You?

One point that is often missed in letters or recommendation is that the author doesn't describe their relationship with the student and their qualifications for writing this letter. How long have you been a youth leader or pastor? What makes you an authority figure? Do you have a degree? Are you experienced in the area for which the student is applying? Don't forget to write a little bit about yourself so the reader knows who you are.

Be Honest

You may think that making the student sound better than he or she is will help them, but it won't. Be honest about the qualifications and accomplishments of the student. Don't add awards or skill sets that the student doesn't have. Lying or gross hyperbole will do nothing to help, because it's too easily transparent or can be found out. If you talk simply about who the student is and why you think they're qualified in an honest way, you'll find the letter will speak well about the student. Also, don't write a letter of recommendation if you truly don't feel like the student is qualified or you don't feel you know the student well enough. Your ambivalence will show through, and won't do the student any good.

Add the Personal Touch

Too often letters of recommendation are general statements where you don't see the person about whom the letter is written. Add a personal story or detail that lets the reader know how this student has impacted you or the world around him or her. A personal touch goes a long way in a letter of recommendation.

Be Succinct, but Not Brief

Sure, the student is an overachiever, but why? Be succinct in your writing by avoiding superfluous words or rambling sentences. However, don't be too brief. Explain the student's qualifications. Why is he or she an overachiever? This is when you add the personal touch. Give examples of why and how. Any qualification should be followed by a why and how statement. A one paragraph letter reads like a list and tells the reader that you really don't know the student well. A one page letter says it perfectly. A five-page letter? Maybe pare it down a bit. You may be gushing too much.

Tailor the Letter

One mistake writers make is that they think a one-size-fits-all letter will work. Students are applying for different things. Make sure you know if the letter is going to a college, trade school, Christian camp, scholarship program, etc. Tailor the letter so that the qualifications you're writing about fit the setting. It will do a lot to make the student appear like they belong in the program or deserve the award.

Proofread, Proofread, and Proofread Again

You want your letter of recommendation to be taken seriously, so make sure it's proofread. Mistakes in a letter make you lose credibility with the reader, and some mistakes can change the entire tone or meaning of a sentence. Be sure you read your letter, or even have someone else read your letter a few times to get rid of all the grammatical mistakes.
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  5. How to Write a Good Letter of Recommendation

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