Ding, ding…its round two of recommendation letter season for seniors.  Every January, I often feel like I am drowning in writing recommendations for scholarships, colleges, and summer internships.  Currently, I have several requests for Gates Millennium recommendations from former students; several students have stopped by and asked for recommendation letters for scholarships due in January; and let’s not forget all the parents who have called requesting letters because they believe I know more about their kid than I really do. 

Okay, I am starting to feel overwhelmed just writing this post!!

January is the second round of recommendations!

Although I am not physically in a role as high school counselor, I am always a counselor so many of my former families contact me about writing letters. While I have an ethical responsibility to these students, I also have to think about the unwritten rules for writing letters for students I don’t really know that well.  So, what are the rules when it comes to writing recommendation letters for these students (yes, there are rules!)?  Unfortunately, many school counselors, myself included, are often oblivious about these unwritten rules. In this post, I hope reveal these guidelines so you can avoid letter writing pitfalls and problems.

Why Should School Counselors Write a Recommend Letter?

Bring your students stories to life!

So, way bother writing a letter? Instead of thinking about letter writing as an unfortunate “duty” (yes, I am guilty of thinking like this too), imagine it as an opportunity to advocate for your students by highlighting their strengths, showing their potential to thrive, and bringing their story to life for colleges.  Although teachers’ letters are important, a school counselor’s letter is extra special. So, how is a school counselor’s recommendation different from a teacher’s recommendation?  A teacher’s recommendation often has a
narrow focus and centers on the student’s presence in the classroom.  Teachers write about the student’s ability to learn in class, leadership ability in the classroom,  and how the classroom may benefit from the student’s presence.  A school counselor’s recommendation has a much broader scope.  The focus of the school counselor’s letter can include information about student character, academic strengths, passions, areas of leaderships, and past obstacles. To me, I am sharing a rare glimpse about that student’s life that college’s will never see!

How to Get Started!!

College expert and blogger, Rebecca Safier, gives some excellent advice and examples on how to write a great recommendation letter. First of all, school counselors need to remember that colleges actually take school counselor recommendations seriously (yes, it is true some college committees may not, but we will not discuss this here)! According to ASCA expert Dr. Carolyn Stone, in a ASCA survey regarding college recommendations, only 12% out of 558 respondents felt that their recommendation letter made a difference in college acceptance. The College Board states that a counselor recommendation can make a significant difference when a student has a low score on an admission exam or mediocre grades in college acceptance process. The Independent College Counselors Educational Consultants website states that because school counselors know more about their students in the school setting over an extended period of time, they are competent to make a qualified recommendation.   In fact, William Fitzsimmons of Harvard University revealed they often project letters of recommendation for all the committee members to see and read (yikes)!

So, how exactly are those letters used by college committees? Recommendations can help a student in each of following areas:

  • Admission acceptance
  • Review of provisional students for acceptance
  • Scholarship offers
  • Special programs acceptance

Since school counselors have large numbers of letters to write, it is easy for the quality of our letters to diminish. Therefore, it is important that we provide appropriate content and keep the interest of our audience.  Also, we need to know how to tell our students’ stories. While teachers can tell the academic story of a student,  our narrative should be about student growth.  In addition to addressing growth, school counselors should point out students’ strengths and qualities.  Examples can include past achievements, potential for growth, and commitment to the school community.  Rather than chronologically listing a student’s resume (uh hum), highlighting a students involvement in community service, participation in sports, leadership ability, and passion for a particular subject can speak volumes! Another important point that colleges and scholarship committees look for is your relationship with that student.  Speaking about a specific anecdote can show the committee that you really know this student.  Another point I like to make is use of  language.  Don’t use cliche or pithy language; however, use power words like strong communication skills, empathetic, committed, passionate, and curious.  Also, speaking about a student’s potential future is important and can include descriptions about a student’s past achievement. This can show an admissions committee that they are making a good investment in this student!! 

Before writing a letter,  always make sure you get appropriate information about your student.  Unfortunately, I have been guilty of forgetting to do this important step which can mean the difference between an outstanding and poor letter.

Here are some questions to consider when writing a recommendation:

1.  What is the context of your relationship to the student?
2.  Has the student demonstrated intellectual risks (Advanced Placement and/or Dual Enrollment)?

Your letter when you don’t know your student!

3.  Does the student have any talents, leadership abilities, or unusual skills?
4.  What will you remember most about this student?
5.  Has the student had any difficult circumstances and how did he or she react to them?
6.  Are there any unusual family or community circumstances that impacted this student?

The College Board gives some excellent resources for school counselors to collect information about students in order to write a great recommendation letter.  These resources include teacher recommendation forms, questionnaires, and a student self assessment.

Here is a short excerpt from a good recommendation letter from MIT:

Mary has contributed to the school community in a variety of ways, most notably through her participation on the newspaper and yearbook staffs. Frankly, I am impressed with her aggressiveness, creativity, determination and ability to schedule extracurricular activities around a full academic workload. I have never heard Mary complain about her workload or refuse any assignment that she has been given. It is not adequate to say that she accepts responsibility readily. She seeks responsibility. Oh, for more such students!

As business manager for the paper and co-editor of the yearbook the past two years, Mary has done an outstanding job. She personally brought the town’s business community from the view that the school newspaper was a charitable organization to the realization that the paper is a direct pipeline through which advertisers can reach students. She also took the initiative to set up the advertising rate schedule for the paper that produced enough revenue to expand coverage from a four-page paper, so that it is an eight-page and often twelve-page paper. Her work as photographer for both publications has been equally outstanding.

Her motivation is not forced upon her, nor does she wear it like a badge. She has tremendous self-discipline. Mary is also a dedicated, versatile and talented student who will be an asset to your undergraduate community. She has my respect and my highest recommendation.

Avoid these pitfalls!

Now that we know what to include in our letter, we must talk about no no’s.  Safier gives some qualities of a weak recommendation letter.  First, avoid using quantitative data like gpa or number of years in a sports or club (I have been guilty of this). Avoid using generic language, lukewarm praise, or using adjectives without examples. For goodness sake, don’t use a template.  Yes, I have done this when I first started writing letters and it was hard to give it up!  Here is a overview of what to include in the letter.

The Recommendation Letter Structure

1.  Keep it to one page!

2.  In the introduction, talk about how you are qualified to write this letter and what you know about this student.  Writing a catchy opening statement is important in getting the reader’s attention.

Here is an example of a catchy opening statement:  Buffy, a great student who can do it all!

3.  In the body of your letter, tell the student’s story. This can include awards, successes, challenges, leadership skills, and service. The Associated College of the Midwest gives some suggestions for your body.

  • Move from general to specific examples.
  • Use topic sentences to your points.
  • Don’t reiterate information that is found on the transcript.

4.  In your conclusion, reiterate your support of the student and an invitation for representatives to reach out to you.  It is here that you may address any concerns you may have about the student in a positive manner and be sure to continue and reinforce strengths the student will take with him or her to college. Check out the sample letter and suggestions below for more ideas.

Sample Letter
How to Write a Letter of Recommendation

Preparing for the Emergency Recommendation

Yes, this will happen! In fact, I have numerous students who ask me to be a nominator or recommender for the Gates Millennium Scholarship in January even though the deadline is mid-January. Although the majority of students ask me several weeks in advance, there are often students who need help at the last minute (this generally happens because their person doesn’t follow through or forgets to submit the recommendation).  In cases where a student may ask you to make a last minute recommendation, it is important to always set guidelines for these students.

The Importance of the Gates Millennium Scholarship

Student Guidelines When Asking  for a Letter of Recommendation

Rebecca Safier and Big Future give students some tips on how to ask for a recommendation letter.

1.  Because educators are inundated with recommendation letter request, ask for letters early (i.e. September).
2.  The best way to ask for a recommendation letter is in person.  The Ivy Coach says that students need to take time to speak personally to their counselor.
3.  Waive your right to view your recommendation letter by signing the FERPA waiver.
4.  Make sure your references know your deadlines for letters.
5.  Give your teacher/school counselor some information about you in a brag sheet or resume.  Here are some examples of recommendation packets, students brag sheets, and parent questionnaires.

Recommendation Guideline Packet from Kamehameha School Counselors
Recommendation Guideline Packet from Coppell ISD
Recommendation Guideline Packet from South Tahoe High School Counselors
Recommendation Guideline Packet from Wayzata High School Counselors

Brag Sheet #1
Brag Sheet #2
Brag Sheet #3

Parent Brag Sheet #1
Parent Brag Sheet #2
Parent Brag Sheet #3

Great resource from my friend, Carol Miller! Check out her blog, The Middle School Counselor!!

6.  Schedule at least two face to face meetings with your school counselor to talk about your future.
7.  Follow up with your school counselor about one to two weeks before the letter is due.
8.  Give your recommenders stamped envelopes. 
9.  Always send a thank you letter to your school counselor.

A Word of Caution For School Counselors When Writing Recommendations

Dr. Carolyn Stone is my go to person when it comes avoiding traps that school counselors can face in their practice.  At the beginning of this post, I warned you about avoiding pitfalls when writing a recommendation letter for students.  One of the vulnerabilities you may face is writing a letter for a student that you do not really know.  This happened to a school counselor in 2010 and the outcome was not favorable for that counselor!

The parents of Shannon McCoy brought a lawsuit against their school district regarding a recommendation letter the school counselor wrote for their daughter.  Shannon was a champion swimmer who maintained a 3.0 gpa and she had earned a scholarship to Colorado State University.  The parents alleged that Colorado State had rescinded the scholarship offer due to a libelous and fabricated letter sent by the school counselor.  Apparently, the school counselor had written a letter based solely on information from gathered from teachers and failed to meet with the student to discuss her character, service, and integrity.  Although the majority of school counselors feel uncomfortable including negative comments in their letters, the McCoy decision makes the point that if negative comments are included, they must be backed up with specific examples.  If you feel that you cannot write a positive recommendation for a student or you do not know the student well enough to write a good letter, Marna Atkins from Atkin College Counseling says that counselors may decide to opt out.  However, if you decide to opt out of writing a letter it may not be helpful to the student in the college admissions process. My suggestion is to sit down with the student and interview him or her so you can say something positive about that student.

So, I hope this post has been helpful in giving you some guidance in writing a high quality letter. Tis the season!

A recommendation letter is a great gift for your students!

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