Since school counselors support students through all four years of high school, they can write some of the best, most personal letters of recommendations. At the same time, they have the added challenge of writing lots, often hundreds, of letters for all the college-bound students on their caseload.
While almost all counselor references will comment positively on a student, there can still be bad ones that don't offer a whole lot to a student's college application. Let's look at examples that demonstrate the four most common reasons a recommendation letter is bad: it's impersonal and generic, it's repetitive, it gives no specific examples, or it expresses serious reservations about a student.
Bad Recommendation #1: The Generic Letter
A generic recommendation letter is probably the most common problem for counselors with large caseloads of students. The following example illustrates an impersonal recommendation letter.
Dear Admissions Committee,
I'm writing to recommend June for admission to your undergraduate program. I've been her school counselor for the past four years. She is a strong honors student and always does well in her classes. I've heard nothing but good things about June from her teachers.
June is a responsible and involved student. She's active in a number of clubs at the school and has contributed positively to our school community. June challenges herself in her classes and gets along well with her peers. She's a motivated, reliable, and driven student who applies herself to all her endeavors.
June has earned a 3.71 GPA. Her dedication to her academics has impressed all of us at the high school, and I'm confident that she will continue to demonstrate the same commitment at college. June balances her time well among her many responsibilities and is curious about a diverse range of subjects. I look forward to seeing her continue to explore her interests and delve deeply into her passions.
In closing, I highly recommend June for admission to your college. She's intelligent, active, and curious. For any further information, please contact me at email@example.com.
So what exactly makes this letter come off as generic, and why is that so bad for a rec letter?
The Break Down
This letter doesn't really say anything unique about June. In fact, if you just plugged in a different name, checked your pronouns, and adjusted the GPA, it could be a generic letter about any number of students.
Admissions officers can tell pretty easily if a rec letter seems like a form letter with only the student's name and a few personalizing details plugged in. While a letter like this technically fulfills the recommendation requirement, it doesn't fulfill its role in the application, which is to reveal something insightful and personal about the student and differentiate her from other applicants.
This letter uses boring, tired language and doesn't go beyond cliches. June is "responsible, involved, and active," but so might be all the other competing applicants. What makes her unique? What specific examples can her counselor give to impart a meaningful assessment of June's academic and personal strengths?
Finally, this letter does little to hone in on specific interests of June's. While it's not uncommon for students to go into college undecided, it's still important to talk about their particular interests and goals. June is "curious about a diverse range of subjects," but what moves her? What has she exceled in or pursued? What does she enjoy doing?
Since this letter lacks impactful language, specific examples, and insightful personal details, it stays on the surface and reads like a generic form letter. This kind of letter won't stand out to admissions officers, and it doesn't suggest that June and her counselor had a familiar relationship. Admissions officers may not pay much attention to this letter, which is a serious drawback compared to another student's application with a glowing counselor rec.
Another type of bad recommendation letter that comes off as impersonal is one that predominantly reports facts and figures. While it may use more positive language, like in the following example, it still comes off as distant and unsupported by anything beyond the student's resume.
Bad Recommendation #2: The Resume-Repeating Letter
This next example may be complimentary, but notice how it mostly just turns the bulletpoints on the student's resume into full sentences. This type of letter could be written by anyone with a copy of Ben's academic and extracurricular record.
Dear Admissions Committee,
It's my pleasure to recommend Ben for admission to your undergraduate program. I've gotten to know Ben over the past four years as his school counselor. Having earned a 3.8 GPA, he has risen to the top 20% of his class. His excellence in academics and involvement in a number of clubs and sports has made him an asset to our school community.
As a member of the National Honors Society, Ben has achieved strong grades throughout high school in a range of classes, including AP classes in World History, Chemistry, and French. As part of his community service, Ben helps other students improve their grades and study skills with one on one tutoring after school in the library. While Ben's a strong, hard-working student, he also achieves outside of the classroom.
Ben has played on the soccer team since freshman year, earning the title of Most Valuable Player in 11th grade. While practice and games keep him busy, he is also active in French Club. A self-described francophile, Ben has won the French language award two years in a row and practiced his language skills on the class trip to France in 2013. After returning from the trip, he presented photographs at a show at the local library and won 2nd place for Best Landscape. All this while working part-time as a cashier at a local bookstore sophomore and junior year.
Ben impresses everyone he knows with his accomplishments. I'm confident that he will continue to excel in college. He has my strong recommendation. For any further information, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Overall, I would say this letter leaves a better impression than the first one. At least it can't be applied to almost any other student. But it still falls short on a number of fronts. Let's break down exactly how this letter misses the mark.
The Break Down
This letter leaves a better impression than the initial generic one, but it doesn't go beyond what Ben does to reveal who Ben is. Admissions officers want to get a deeper glimpse into the character of each applicant.
They already know what a student does based on his application. They're hoping the recommendation will illuminate why he's made the choices that he has. A recommender could shed light on this by discussing a student's values, motivations, goals, and strengths.
In this letter, Ben seems to have a special affinity for French culture and language. He also enjoys photography. To make the letter more personal, the counselor could talk about how Ben became a "francophile" and what this may mean for his future study and profession. Does he consider himself an artist? Does he love landscape photography as a way to express his admiration of the great outdoors?
Ben sounds like an interesting, dynamic individual, but this letter leaves the reader wanting more. It should fill in the blanks and give a more holistic vision of Ben as a student and person. Someone reading this letter should have a much clearer sense of who Ben is, even without meeting him in person.
One easy way to see that a letter probably has too much data and not enough real, deep assessment is by looking for numbers. Ben's relatively short letter includes a lot of numbers: 3.8 GPA, top 20%, 11th grade, 2013, 2nd place, for instance. These come off as data points. While they're accurate, they convey technical information rather than meaningful examples of Ben's character.
To truly communicate a holistic assessment of an applicant, a letter should go beyond the facts. This next example actually has the opposite problem. It describes the candidate with glowing adjectives, but offers little to no evidence to back up its complimentary assessment. This writer seems to want admissions officers to just take her word for it.
We're going to need to see some examples of your work.
Bad Recommendation #3: The "Just Take My Word for It" Letter
This letter uses more specific, powerful language than the first two to endorse the student. However, it gives few examples to illustrate its points. Just as students need to dig below the surface in their personal essays, recommenders should give meaningful examples in their letters. This letter merely describes, when it also needs to demonstrate.
Dear Admissions Committee,
It is my pleasure to recommend Gina for admission to your college. As her school counselor for the past four years, I've watched Gina grow into a mature, compassionate, and dynamic young woman. I'm happy to give her my highest recommendation for this exciting next chapter in her life.
Gina is an intelligent and hard-working student who has impressed her teachers with her curiosity and dedication. She's especially interested in literature and poetry and contributes her writing to the school literary magazine. Gina is interested in majoring in English next year and continuing to hone her craft.
In addition to being a motivated student, Gina gets along well with others and is a caring friend. She has a kind nature and genuinely cares for those around her. She never has a bad word to say about anyone and is the first to lend a helping hand in a tough situation. Gina's open-minded, amiable personality makes her an asset to classroom discussions. She works and gets along well with others and has impressive interpersonal and social skills.
In closing, Gina is a caring, motivated student and friend, and she has my highest recommendation. I'm confident that she will be a great success in her college community. Please feel free to contact me with any questions.
Ms. Honey seems to think very highly of Gina. Unfortunately, her letter might not go too far in boosting Gina's chances of admission. Let's go over why it's not so effective.
The Break Down
This letter represents the flip side of the "resume-repeating letter" in that it's all assessment and few facts or examples. The writer calls Gina caring, compassionate, mature, curious, and open-minded, but she gives few examples to support her characterization. The only concrete piece of information that the writer gives is that Gina likes literature and writes for the school literary magazine.
The writer should provide specific stories about Gina that illustrate her compassion, maturity, or curiosity. When was she "the first to lend a helping hand"? What does she write about for the magazine? How has she shown her counselor her impressive interpersonal skills?
This letter would be a lot more memorable, not to mention believable, if it described circumstances or observations in which Gina demonstrated these personal qualities. Without them, it loses impact and meaning and pales in comparison to more specific, supported recommendation letters.
Finally, this last example suggests that the counselor had a lot of reservations about recommending her student. While recommenders should present a balanced assessment, focusing on the reservations without presenting sufficient strengths wouldn't be helpful for a student's application.
Bad Recommendation #4: Recommended, with Reservations
Admissions officers have a lot of experience reading hundreds or thousands of recommendation letters. They can read between the lines and pick up on subtleties. If a counselor uses a lot of loaded phrases that express hesitation about a student, without balancing them out with a student's strengths, then the letter could come off as negative overall, like in the following example:
Dear Admissions Committee,
I am writing to recommend Charlie for admission to your college. As his school counselor for the past four years, I've watched Charlie come a long way after a rocky freshman year. I'm confident in his potential to apply himself at college and to continue to grow as a student.
Charlie is motivated to continue his education next year. He's especially interested in the sciences and is considering majoring in Biology. His 11th grade biology teacher noted Charlie's effort and improvement over the year. Charlie is drawn to cellular biology and has expressed interest in working in a research lab.
Charlie played drums in the school band in junior year. He enjoyed performing at school concerts. This year he's recommitted himself to focusing on his academics and sharpening his study skills to prepare for the demands of college. I'm impressed with Charlie's hard work and am confident that he will continue to grow and mature in the years to come.
I recommend Charlie for admission to your program. He's a hard-working student with a tremendous amount of potential. Please be in touch with any questions.
It's not necessarily a bad thing to speak to a student's potential and room to grow in a recommendation letter, but where does this example fall short?
The Break Down
This letter focuses almost entirely on Charlie's growth in the future, without saying very much about what he's done so far. It does suggest growth and progress on his part, but the overall emphasis is on how much further Charlie still has to improve.
Ms. Collins talks about his potential so many times without presenting much that's positive about his current strengths. Even if he has struggled academically, she could talk about his personal qualities, character, relationships with others, or involvement at the school.
Because she seems like she's grasping for things to say about Charlie, this letter barely fulfills its role as a recommendation. Instead, it comes off more like a word of caution.
These four examples illustrate the most common reasons why a counselor letter of recommendation could miss the mark. Besides being generic, data driven, unspecific, or full of reservations, what other features can weaken letters of recommendation for college?
What Else Makes a Recommendation Letter Bad?
Some other features that would drag down a recommendation letter include,
- It's too short. Letters should be a full page. Any shorter than this wouldn't convey enough information, and it would suggest that the recommender wasn't motivated to put much time or thought into it.
- It's not proofread. Errors of grammar or spelling give that same impression of carelessness and lack of investment in helping the student.
- It's not customized to the college or program. Actually, a lot of teachers and counselors upload the same letter to the Common Application for students to send to all their colleges. However, if a student is set on a particular program or an especially selective college, like Harvard, then the recommendation letter could be strengthened by speaking specifically to the student's fit with that program or school.
Some of these issues are easy to avoid. Proofread your letters to make sure there are no grammatical errors or inaccuracies. Brainstorm before writing to make sure you have enough material to provide a full portrait of the student.
Rather than listing every accomplishment a student has ever made, a stronger letter highlights a few key interests and goals of the student's. That way it's focused and specific.
Students should share detailed "brag sheets" and talk to their counselors to make sure their counselors have all the information. They should share what would go into their ideal letter, like if they want their counselor to highlight their passion for community service, poetry, or engineering.
As long as both counselors and students take the time to plan, reflect, and communicate, then bad letters like the ones above can be avoided. Instead, students will get memorable, outstanding, and insightful letters of recommendation for their college applications.
Are you working with students as a school counselor or college counselor? This in depth guide goes over the steps counselors should take to produce a high quality, outstanding letter of recommendation.
Do teacher recs differ from counselor recs at all? Read about what teachers should include in their reference letters for their students.
Now that you've read all these examples of bad letters, take time to read the good ones. Here are examples of strong recommendation letters written by counselors and teachers (coming soon).
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Rebecca graduated with her Master's in Adolescent Counseling from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has years of teaching and college counseling experience and is passionate about helping students achieve their goals and improve their well-being. She graduated magna cum laude from Tufts University and scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT.