As a counselor, you play a huge role in helping students along the path to college. Throughout their four years, you support them in setting goals and making plans for after high school. When it comes time to apply, you write their letters of recommendation.
Having worked as a college counselor and spent the past year as a grad student intern in a high school counseling department, I saw how much counselors do in the college planning and application process. I also saw the challenges of supporting large caseloads of students and writing hundreds of letters of recommendation, often around the same hectic time. Despite the mad rush, these counselors crafted eloquent letters customized to each and every one of their students.
Based on my observations and my own experience writing letters for my students, I've compiled what I think is the most helpful advice for writing memorable and effective recommendations. I'll go over key content, structure, and style, as well as discuss what not to include in a recommendation letter.
Since it's always good to keep your goals in sight, I'll start by going over the purpose of the counselor letter of recommendation. What are they for, and how do they differ from a teacher recommendation?
What's the Purpose of the Counselor Letter of Recommendation?
The counselor recommendation letter is given serious consideration by admissions committees. Writing a strong letter of support is one more way that counselors can advocate for their students and help them achieve their academic and personal goals.
While a teacher's recommendation may emphasize a student's academic abilities and attitude toward learning, a counselor can focus more on the student's personal growth and role within the school community. As a counselor, you can speak to the student's strength of character and interpersonal skills, as well as the student's goals during and following college.
The best recommendations are specific and in depth, which can be a challenge for counselors with large caseloads. The national average of student to counselor ratio is 471 to 1! How can a counselor get to know all her students well enough to write a personalized letter?
Most schools ask students to fill out a "brag sheet," or to answer self-reflective prompts like, "Discuss a significant experience that shaped who you are today" or "Share an obstacle or challenge you overcame and what you learned from it." These brag sheets, combined with college meetings, can reveal a great deal about the student. This material, along with observations and the relationship you've had with the student over her four years in school, can go a long way toward informing your letter.
To help you and students make the most of these meetings and brag sheets, what's the key content that you need for a strong letter of recommendation?
What Should Go Into a Letter of Recommendation?
Intuitively, most recommenders know that they should talk about their students' strengths and how great they would be at college. Most recommendation letters say positive things about a student. But what makes some of them stand out among the rest and truly impress admissions officers? What can you do as a counselor to boost your student's chances of getting in?
The most effective letters paint a specific portrait of a student. Rather than listing everything under the sun, they zero in on key strengths and qualities. They use powerful words, give a high ranking, avoid cliches, and tell specific stories to prove their characterization of a student. A good recommendation speaks to a student's past achievements and indicates confidence in her future success. Let's look more in depth at how to accomplish each of these things.
Highlight Major Strengths and Impressive Personal Qualities
The most memorable recommendation letters tell a specific story. You don't have to list everything on a student's resume, or strive to present them as the most well-rounded candidate the school will ever see. Often, admissions officers are impressed by a student's commitment to developing expertise or cultivating skill in a certain area. Deep achievement is generally more noteworthy than general dabbling, and your recommendation letter can reflect that.
Stella's greatest strengths are her sensitivity to others and commitment to social justice.
A budding intellectual, Jon is fascinated by new ideas and has a tremendous capacity to weigh many different opinions at the same time.
An excellent student and strong leader, Maria stands out with her strong inner voice and assured sense of self.
From Potions to Divination to History of Magic, there's no subject that Hermione hasn't mastered through sheer cleverness, effort, and determination. (This one might only work for magical universities.)
I'm not suggesting that you leave out major strengths of your students, as you want to paint a dynamic picture of them as multifaceted individuals. But you should highlight the most important ones and avoid writing a list of everything they've done and been involved in.
Plus, simply repeating a resume says nothing about your relationship with the student. By highlighting her passion for volunteer work, love of historical research, commitment to sports, or fascination with physics, you're giving insight into what drives a student to do what she does and how she communicates and demonstrates her passions to those around her, including yourself.
To best narrow down your thoughts, I've found it helpful to brainstorm what comes to mind when I think about a student. Is she especially intellectually curious, compassionate towards others, or interested in other cultures? Does she excel at creative problem-solving or at energizing others in a group setting?
Once you've chosen the most important qualities that an admissions officer should know, think about specific anecdotes and examples you can give to prove them. Let her actions speak even louder than your words.
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Give Specific Examples and Anecdotes
Your recommendation letter should definitely include examples. Think of examples as proof of what you're saying. You can say a student is intellectual or philosophical, but that doesn't communicate very much or explain how you know that. Additionally, you could describe a conversation you had with the student about the role of technology in relationships and how she challenged you with ideas you'd never thought about before.
Not only do stories help the student come to life and differentiate her from others with similar qualities, but they also show that you have a strong relationship with the student. By showing that you know her well, your letter carries even more weight. In the eyes of admissions officers, you become especially qualified to assess her and provide a meaningful statement of support.
Since I should practice what I preach, here are a few examples of using examples!
Noah has an outgoing and inspiring presence in our school. As the star of our school's spring musical, he impressed everyone with his beautiful singing voice and flare for comedy. I remember laughing along with the crowd during one of his monologues, wondering how he managed to already have such tangible stage presence.
Monica is remarkable for her caring and kindness toward others. After noticing that some students didn't have appropriate winter attire during last year's polar vortex, she organized a Hope Chest and donations closet, where students could "go shopping" for free gloves, scarves, boots, and coats. She even designed the closet to look like a store, with fancy coat hangers and colorful shopping bags. This extra touch and attention to detail showed me how sensitive and attuned she is to the feelings of others.
To best depict your student in a memorable way, you should be careful with your language. Powerful adjectives and statements of high ranking will stand out a lot more than language that sounds generic or lukewarm.
Use Powerful Language and Rankings
I found word banks of strong adjectives to be helpful when composing and revising letters. When I first sat down to write, all the cliches bounded into my head, eager to be of service.
"Let's write about how she's is a good student with a lot of dedication and a heart of gold!" they'd insist. Not only would these sound cheesy and unspecific, they also don't do much to differentiate the student from anybody else. Sorry, cliches. I know you were just trying to help. Maybe next time.
When drafting, and especially when revising, your letter, be on the lookout for ambiguous, generic, or cliche language. Then think about what words you can use that would be more impactful and communicate exactly what you want to say. Instead of writing about how smart a student is, do you want to comment on her creative problem solving or nuanced understanding of complex issues? Is she particularly innovative in her insights or thorough in her research?
Some powerful words include analytical, insightful, curious, observant, innovative, or mastery (of a specific subject area). Others that fall more in the arena of personal and professional strengths include mature, flexible, generous, empathetic, leader, versatile, ethical, motivated, ambitious, resourceful, and strong communication skills.
Of course, these descriptors are not sufficient on their own. As discussed above, you want to use examples from observations or interactions to illustrate what you mean. Two students might both be ambitious but in very different ways. You always want to differentiate the applicant from all the others and comment on what makes her unique.
A high ranking, furthermore, can also go a long way from a counselor, especially one who has worked in the school for years. Statements like these say a lot.
Always ready with a book suggestion and eager to get to English class, Juan is the most literary student I've ever worked with in my twelve years at Cumberland High School.
In terms of academic talent, passion, and drive, Kate is one of the top three students I've known in my ten years as an educator.
In my decade counseling students at Forks High School, I've never met a student as self-aware or driven as Edward.
Saying someone is "above average" doesn't sound too strong, though, so you should probably leave out a statement of ranking unless it's particularly glowing. Finally, your letter can speak to a student's potential and talk about what you envision her doing at college and beyond.
Speak to a Student's Future Success
Admissions officers are aiming to build a class of dynamic, diverse students with a range of talents and interests. They want students whose past achievements point to their future success. As a counselor who has likely seen the student grow and develop over a transformative four years, you can speak to her continued growth in college.
Assure admissions officers that your students will contribute academically and socially at college. Speak to what you see them doing, and how they'll be a major asset to their community. If the student has struggled in school, you could speak to her potential for growth. Statements like these can usually come in the conclusion of your letter.
Based on the incredible resilience Ashley has shown throughout the challenges in her life, I have no doubt that she will continue to handle anything that comes her way with strength, grace, and a positive outlook.
Considering all she's accomplished as Class President, I am confident that Sara will have a strong voice and leadership role on her college campus.
Even with his mysterious absences, Edward has risen to top of his class. I'm sure he will continue to excel academically during this next chapter of his eternal life (Twilight: The College Years).
While all of these elements are key for your letter of recommendation, are there any types of content that you shouldn't include in your letter? I touched upon a few of them above, but let's review what could make your letter ineffective.
What Shouldn't Go Into a Letter of Recommendation?
To reiterate the point, simply listing out a student's activities and achievements would make for a weak letter. It's not personal or insightful, and it's a reiteration of information that's present in other parts of the application. While you should speak to significant involvements, you should do so in a personal way - what drives the student and how has she demonstrated her skills, interests, or personality.
On a similar note, writing about quantitative data, like GPA or number of years involved in each club, won't add much to a student's chances. It's like confirming that the student attended your school, without actually giving an assessment or recommendation.
When you go through your letter, be on the lookout for generic language that could apply to a number of students. Similarly, revise anything that's ambiguous or hyperbolic. Overblown enthusiasm could sound insincere, while lukewarm praise could sound forced. Make sure you're not listing adjectives without examples. When you read over your letter, it should add value to an application by providing insight and differentiating the student from other applicants with similar grades and activities.
Finally, you don't want to use a template that's very similar for a lot of students, especially if they're applying to the same colleges. Nearly identical letters would make you lose credibility in the eyes of admissions officers, and then your letter would do little to help a student get accepted.
Once you've brainstormed the qualities you want to highlight and stories you want to tell, it's helpful to draft your letter with a clear structure in mind.
How to Structure Your Recommendation Letter
Your recommendation letter should be one page. In exceptional circumstances, you might continue onto two pages, but generally speaking it should be one full page. Less than that could look like you don't have much to say about a student. That might be the case, but admissions officers will notice that and interpret it as they will.
In the introduction, you should state your recommendation for the student. Say who you are and how long and in what contexts you've known the student. This shows that you're qualified to make an assessment.
As Sofia's counselor for the past four years at Degrassi High, I have had the pleasure of watching her grow into one of the most successful students in her class.
James: inventor, sci-fi fan, coder extraordinaire. In my twelve years as a counselor at High School High, I've never seen a student more passionate about technological innovation than James, who has a skill for computer engineering far beyond his years.
In the middle two to three paragraphs, you can dive into your assessment of the student, using the content and techniques talked about above. Highlight her impressive personal qualities, and talk about her growth. If there are any important challenges the student has had to overcome, you should share that as well. If the challenge is especially personal, I would double check with the student that she feels comfortable sharing that information.
If you can tailor your assessment to the specific college, all the better. For highly selective colleges, you could attest to the student's ability to thrive in an academically rigorous environment. You could speak to her collaboration, communication, or leadership skills, to her flexibility or ambition, or to her resourcefulness and resilience.
One of the most ethically driven and global minded students I've known in my 12 years as a counselor, Laura founded the Amnesty International Club at our school and worked tirelessly to involve her fellow students, faculty, and community in her campaigns for human rights and international justice. Tufts University, with its renowned international relations program, would be an ideal fit with her interests and goals for the future.
As a creative, mature, and self-directed learner, Ana would thrive in Brown's environment, where she could explore her passion for science and build a rigorous curriculum that would match her goals.
Finally, in the conclusion you should restate your support for the candidate. Provide a vision of what you see her accomplishing at college. Conclude with an invitation for admissions officers to contact you with any questions or for any further information. Be intentional with how you conclude your letter. Will readers be left with a strong impression of the student? Did your letter communicate exactly what you wanted to say?
To review, let's go over the do's and don't's of writing a letter of recommendation.
The best letters take time and thought to personalize, which can be tough to come by when you have hundreds of letters to write. By honing in on the key content and structure of good letters, you can streamline the process for yourself and cut out approaches that waste time or produce mediocre letters. Below are the key points that helped me the most when writing recommendation letters for students with all different interests, plans, and personalities.
- Be as specific as possible, highlighting a student's major strengths and impressive personal qualities.
- Show, don't tell. Be demonstrative with stories and examples, rather than just descriptions.
- Use powerful, enthusiastic language and statements of high ranking.
- Be careful not to use phrases that could be interpreted negatively.
- Talk about personal challenges the student has overcome.
- Give your vision for how you see the student contributing to her college community.
- Restate everything on a student's resume.
- List quantitative data.
- Describe a student without having examples to illustrate your points.
- Use generic, ambiguous, or hyperbolic language.
- Leave out essential insights into the student's character or motivations.
- Sound lukewarm or downright critical.
- Go too long or too short.
- Copy and paste from other letters.
As a counselor, you're an indispensable part of a student's journey of self-discovery and post-high school planning. While all those letters can feel overwhelming, you're also one of the best people to advocate for your students and expertly write letters of recommendation that will help them get accepted to their dream schools.
What makes a strong letter of recommendation here? Check out our full guide and new examples here.
For more insight on writing letters of recommendation, check out these examples of great college recommmendation letters from counselors. And to see what not to do, read these examples of bad recommendations from counselors (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.