Counselor Q&A: Writing an Effective Letter of Recommendation

Senior Assistant Editor, Wintergreen Orchard House

Among the many tasks required of a college counselor is that of responding to students’ requests for letters of recommendation. Fielding all of those inquiries can be challenging and time-consuming. Each year, you may be faced with firing off dozens of letters, each of which must be tailored to the student in question, and the mere thought of tackling such an endeavor can leave one exhausted.

Unfortunately, it isn’t possible to ease the burden by using a generic, catchall letter for all of your students across the board, but you can develop your own basic framework that will allow you to fill in the blanks and produce a unique response for each of them.

I asked Marna Atkin of Atkin College Counseling to answer a few questions and share some of her insights on the subject. Whether you’re an old pro or new to the fine art of recommendations, here are a few of her pointers for crafting persuasive letters for your students.

What are some of the main points you should include in a letter of recommendation?

Discuss what is unique about the student, note examples of his or her leadership in activities, and give specific examples of how the student set himself/herself apart from other students you have had in your career.

What types of examples should a counselor provide to back up an assessment of a student’s scholarly abilities?

Give examples of the ways in which the student challenged himself or herself by taking rigorous and challenging courses, discuss his or her pursuit of knowledge and love of learning, and highlight outstanding grades and scores (such as AP grades, SAT Subject test scores, national exams in foreign languages or math, etc.).

What types of examples should a counselor give to back up an assessment of a student’s personal character?

Anything specific that the counselor is aware of. For example, many years ago I had a student who was on a “Close-Up” trip to Washington, D.C., and while on a tour, the group encountered another tourist who required CPR. Without any fanfare, this student went into action and saved the man’s life. Obviously, not everyone is going to have those kinds of life-altering experiences, but anything that can be highlighted about the student to show character, leadership, kindness, caring, and respect would be valuable information.

If a student requests a letter of recommendation and you feel you do not know him or her well enough to write one, what do you suggest doing to acquire sufficient information?

Some counselors ask for a “brag sheet” from students and their parents. That can be very helpful as a guide, especially if you are not familiar with the student. Also, having the student complete an activities résumé (highlighting leadership, volunteer and community service, athletics, etc.) is very useful.

Describe a basic “template” for a letter of recommendation.

Every letter should contain information regarding how long you have known the student and how long you have been in your position. Other than that, there is no particular template I would recommend following, as I think that “cookie-cutter” letters of recommendation are pointless.

Should you ever address a student’s weaknesses in a letter of recommendation?

Sometimes addressing a student’s weakness can have a positive spin. For example, if a student was forced to miss many days of school due to illness and his or her grades suffered as a result, or if he or she had other extenuating circumstances that may have contributed to the weakness, it is beneficial to mention it up front.

What should you do if you feel you cannot in good conscience write a letter of recommendation for a student?

This is a sensitive area. When a student asks for a letter of recommendation and you feel that you cannot provide something positive, there is an option now for counselors to “opt out” of a counselor letter. While that may not reflect well on a student, there are a number of reasons that are listed as to why you are opting out (too heavy a caseload to write individual letters, not knowing the student well enough, etc.). The policies on this may vary from school to school.

All of that said, I was a high school guidance counselor for 30 years and I can’t think of a single instance when I refused to write a letter of recommendation. Some came easier than others but I always tried to find something positive to write about.

On average, about how long should the letter be?

That is a very difficult question to answer. I think this truly varies by the student, the amount of information you have, and the specific points you can highlight—all without becoming repetitive or rambling. You also need to remember that there is someone on the other end reading this and they may be reading hundreds of letters in a week, so the letter needs to be interesting and to-the-point.

If a student asks you submit letters of recommendation to multiple schools, is it necessary to change the letter for each school? If so, in what instances, and how should it be changed?

A few points: many schools now use the Common Application, and there is not an opportunity to customize each letter. It merely uploads to as many schools as the student is applying to. If the school does not use the Common App, it really is not necessary to customize, but if you do, be careful: you do not want to recommend a student for admission to the University of Maryland if the application is for the University of Florida!

Is there anything that counselors should be careful not to mention in a letter of recommendation, such as more personal details like references to a student’s religious or political affiliation?

Typically, it’s best not to mention personal areas such as politics, right wing/left wing views, etc. However, as an example, over the years I have had many students applying to predominantly Catholic colleges because they wanted to be in an environment that fostered certain beliefs, values, and cultures that they embraced. I always supported that, and when able to attest to the student’s commitment to faith and church, I was glad to do so.

For more insights and advice from Marna Atkin, be sure to check out her College Counselor Profile!

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