Updated June 2023

There are tons of examples of great thank-you letters to stakeholder donors. You probably have a bunch in your tax receipts file -- I know I do. But after decades of writing recommendation letters for students seeking admission to undergraduate and graduate programs, I've never gotten an acknowledgment letter anywhere near as good as the one I received the other day from The University of South Carolina School of Law.

6 Traits of an effective acknowledgment letter

Let's look at why this letter is an example you should follow when you want to say thanks for something the "donor" isn't even expecting acknowledgment for:

1. Voice

The friendly and conversational voice sets the tone, helps me relate to the writer and feels authentic. For instance: Dr. Britton's hope that I'm "settling into a satisfying routine" exhibits empathy and creates a connection unlike the standard "I hope this finds you well" (which I'm trying super hard to stop using, btw), and "personal contact with applicants was almost nonexistent" sounds like something a real person would say.

2. Ideas & Details

The call to action -- to send other candidates their way -- is clear and reasonable. Dr. Britton includes sufficient detail to help me see how recommendations like mine help her and her team, like:

  • Evidence: "The 214 members of our 2021 entering class were selected from 1,746 applicants are are from 26 states..." and "...our class came to South Carolina Law from 86 undergraduate institutions..."
  • Explanations: "These recommendations are always useful, but in a year in which personal contact with applicants was almost nonexistent, your perspective on candidates who could contribute to our law school community was invaluable." and "Our law school relies on individuals like you, who know our candidates well and can help us understand and fully appreciate their strengths and abilities."

3. Organization

The letter starts with gratitude and empathy, transitions into data that create context for why my recommendation was important and shows off how competitive admissions are and closes with more gratitude, and closes with a clear call to action.

4. Word choice

Another reason I love "settling into a satisfying routine" is because it acknowledges that we are still living in "challenging times" without using that over-used term. The language is clear, simple and devoid of legalese, which reinforces the friendly voice and relatability.

5. Sentence fluency

Dr. Britton uses a mix of sentence patterns and lengths to create a flow within and between paragraphs that influences the conversational tone and makes the letter an easy read.

6. Conventions & Formatting

The letter is centered on the page and the ragged right margin makes the long-ish line length easier to manage. My only quibble here is the date. I got this letter, dated September 30, on September 25.

After reading the letter, I felt really good about a school I admit wasn't on my radar until my friend decided to apply there. I learned more about it then and had a favorable impression, which was solidified by Dr. Britton's letter.

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