22 Jan 2020

Writing a Winning College Recommendation Letter

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Writing a college recommendation letter can be tricky. “But it can also be painless,” said Sampoerna University’s academic adviser Novi Kusumaningrum at the seminar titled ‘Writing a Winning College Recommendation Letter’. Speaking before the audience consisting of several high school counselors, teachers, and principals around the Jabodetabek area on January 16th, 2020, the academic counselor generously shared some of valuable tips on how to write a riveting college recommendation letter.

Prior to that, she explained why a college recommendation letter is worth the time, thought and effort. “Sometimes we wonder if a university really read the letter before admitting students. How much effort do we have to put in this?”

Although there is no certain answer to this, the fact is competitive universities may read them. “Especially if a university makes it necessary in their application requirements,” Ms. Kusumaningrum said.

“A recommendation letter helps universities see a future student in someone else’s point of view so they can decide whether this student is a good fit for their universities,” said she. They want to see impressive traits and characteristics beyond academic prowess. This is because academic achievements at times cannot show personalities.

A recommendation letter that shows a good storytelling will attract better. This requires proper writing skills in English. Some people do not feel comfortable with writing or it is simply that they are not professionally trained for that. “In this case, a counselor may work together with someone else who is more capable of writing in English such as an English teacher in the same school,” she advised.

Sometimes we think a student’s character or trait is interesting, but the thing is: Does it interest a university?

“It’s because we never know what appeals to universities. It could be as ‘small’ as the university has a small Indonesian population. So, they read everything and want to see if the student is a proper fit for the university,” she added.

An important tip is that a recommendation letter should add details that are not included yet in the CV or application letter and a school’s profile. A recommendation letter must show something else that is not reflected in those documents, Ms. Kusumaningrum spoke.

It is also important to humanize a student in a recommendation letter. ” It shows failure if necessary and how they can overcome this. Because this humanizes them,” Ms. Kusumaningrum stated.

To capture abstract things / traits such as empathy, leadership, etc., she also advised that we use anecdotes.

If you have the privilege to teach the student, that is better. But if you don’t and you still have someone else who knows better, then you can ask for someone else’s help such as the student’s friends. Or simply say NO.


There are various ways that teachers can do to get to know our students better. “Talk to your students. What do you remember the most about the student?”

Another way is read their CV and essays, Ms. Kusumaningrum said. We can ask students reflective questions such as “Where did you grow up and what was it like?”, “What is the proudest moment in your life? Why is it so important to you?”, “Was there a time where you felt like you failed as something? How did that make your feel? What did you do after that?”.

Here participants also shared their experience in writing a recommendation letter for their students’ application.

Ms. Kusumaningrum is experienced in assisting freshmen applications, counseling, and facilitating Sampoerna University students who aim to transfer to U.S. universities. (*/)

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