Montgomery Educational Consulting, Sara Purviance of Colorado College, and Craig Wittgrove of Cherry Creek High School have compiled the following tips for high school counselors on writing recommendation letters. We’ve also provided some tips for teacher recommendations.
General Tips/Before Writing the Letter
o Get input from students and parents. This can be accomplished through meetings, questionnaires/brag sheets, etc. Ask students to reflect on their high school experience and what they want to get out of college. Ask parents to share what makes them proud of their child, the child’s greatest accomplishments, etc.
o Inform students about how to follow your school’s protocol for requesting letters. This should include: how to fill out the appropriate forms, transcript requests, student and parent brag sheets/questionnaires, as well as any additional documentation. Make sure this is posted on your counseling website.
o Be clear with students about the timelines your school has in order to meet deadlines.
o Talk to students and families if their counselor is going to change. If you are the new counselor, take time to get to know students. Families are often very worried about this situation.
o If you don’t know a student well, try to talk to teachers/coaches/advisors who do.
o Be clear (and encourage teachers to be clear) if you feel that you will not be able to write a positive recommendation for the student. Let them know you may need to disclose school disciplinary issues.
o Wait until end of junior year to talk to students about letters of recommendation. They are already flooded with information at this point.
o Underestimate parent and student stress around letters of recommendation. They are worried about deadlines and concerned about things that are out of their control. Help ease those concerns by explaining the steps they need to take to make sure everything gets finished on time.
Writing the Letter
o Give context. One of the most valuable components of counselor and teacher letters is that they can give valuable context to a student’s application from the school’s perspective (i.e., what kind of community member the student has been, if there are any extenuating circumstances like an illness or family hardship, etc.).
o Be honest. If you are honest and authentic in your letters, they will read as such and will be significantly more useful to the reader. This also goes for boxes that you might check on a form.
o Write in well-organized paragraphs so information in the letter can be easily referenced.
o Address the applicant’s shortcomings (if relevant). If the student has had bad grades or disciplinary incidents, it is extremely helpful to the reader to get the school’s perspective on the situation(s). Has there been improvement or growth?
o Be specific. A great letter can bring a student to life on the page! You can describe a conversation you have had (sometimes even quoting the student is appropriate), the influence the student has had in the community, or the personality he/she has brought to the classroom.
o Share the student’s own aspirations, as well as any predictions you might have. What do you envision for this student in college? Will he/she pursue research opportunities? Can’t wait to study abroad? Be captain of the debate team? Painting a picture of what you foresee for a student can help the reader see that, too.
o Proofread! (Sometimes it helps to have another counselor read your letter, too.)
o Copy and paste; make the letter specific to the individual student.
o Exaggerate a student’s abilities or accomplishments.
o Be afraid to address sensitive issues in a letter of recommendation. That being said, you may want to talk to family about how to present these issues and whether or not they will be disclosed somewhere else in the application.
o Simply list things that are easily seen on the application (courses titles and extracurricular activities). However, if you can add context or school perspective to a course taken or activity pursued, it becomes valuable information!
o Make your letter too long or too short. A length that usually works well is one to two pages.
Helping Students with Teacher Letters
o Help students understand how to ask the right teacher for a letter. Help them figure out which teacher(s) will be able to talk about the student’s role in the classroom, academic potential, leadership, creativity, contribution to discussion, motivation, etc.
o Make sure students understand that the counselor letter is different from and serves a different goal than the teacher letter.
o Encourage students to thank teachers for the letters that they write. They are busy people and will appreciate the thought and consideration. A hand-written note is best.
o Let students wait until the last minute to ask teachers for a letter of recommendation. We typically recommend that students start thinking in their junior year about who they want to ask, ask at the end of junior year, and then check in at the start of senior year.
Tips for Teachers
o Be specific to your class or academic area.
o Supply anecdotes from your class.
o Explain how a student has made an impact on your class.
o Write at least one page.
o Write about activities or other parts of the student outside of the classroom.
o Disclose personal information without student/parent consent.