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Five Tips for Writing Letters of Recommendation

School counselors share advice on how to survive college application season.

Found in: Advice & Support

January is nearly over, but the college application season is still in full swing. Chances are you are being chased down by your students and your inboxes are filling up with desperate requests for needed letters of recommendation. Students know that letters from their counselors and teachers—among their best advocates in education—are given serious consideration by college admissions committees.

And if you’re a school counselor, like Daryl C. Howard at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md., you’ve already received 45 requests—about half of the 90 seniors on his counseling roster. For Howard, college application season means “sitting down and pressing the keys” to crank out “about a letter a day” from his bustling campus office.

In Arizona, when the same college admissions cycle gets into full swing at Flagstaff High School, Katherine Pastor knows that about 50 of her 100 graduating seniors will also flood in, seeking a letter of recommendation from their school counselor. With a 500-student counseling load, it doesn’t leave Pastor much time to teach, write letters, and provide counsel to all. After 11 years at Flagstaff High, she’s learned to juggle her time and duties.  The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) named Pastor this year’s School Counselor of the Year, and one thing for her won’t change. Pastor says she still steals away to her quiet, home office and plunks down at her desk to draft thoughtful letters of recommendation for her students. She hopes that the letters she’ll write this year will help usher her students into the college of their choice. In about four to five concise paragraphs, Pastor says, “I try to make each one as individual as I can.”  

“In about four to five concise paragraphs, I try to
make each [letter] as individual as I can,”
says school counselor Katherine Pastor.

That’s good advice for anyone writing a letter of recommendation, and Pastor and Howard have some more tips keep you ready, informed, and on top of the barrage of requests:   

  • “It’s OK to say ‘no’ to a student who asks for a letter of recommendation.  If you need to decline, you can still support that student by suggesting that they seek letters from other teachers, club sponsors, coaches, or other educators who may know them better or who are more familiar with their work and abilities. 
  • Before you begin writing, gather as much information as you can about a student to better inform your letter. For Pastor, that includes conducting “interviews” and even asking the student to write a paragraph or two that allow them to brag about their strengths and themselves. While “time consuming,” Pastor doesn’t hesitate to contact a working student’s employer who can also inform her about a student’s interests and abilities outside of the classroom.  
  • Don’t face letter-writing requests alone. Turn to your school’s counseling office or college and career placement staff. At Montgomery Blair High School, Howard helps organize after-school information sessions on the college application process with a focus on writing letters of recommendation. “For English teachers, for example, writing letters of recommendation may come easy, but all teachers and coaches should participate in these sessions,” says Howard, who provides sample letters of recommendation and prompts for getting started. Pastor and the counseling team at Flagstaff High hold similar school forums. “Our staff sessions are designed to make sure that everyone, not just counselors, understand the college admissions process, what’s expected of them, and how they can best support our students. We work really closely to have a team approach to the college admissions process,” adds Pastor.
  • Don’t duplicate letters. Know what’s expected from a teacher and a counselor letter and keep them to about one page, says Pastor, who as a counselor is expected to speak to a student’s attributes and interests outside of the classroom. She writes about her students’ “involvement in extracurricular activities on campus and in the community, or at church,” and when possible, she informs admissions committees of a “personal hardship or challenges” like a parents’ divorce, an illness, or a job loss that a student experienced or overcame. Citing such instances may help explain why a good student’s grades dipped during the school year or demonstrate a student’s resilience, Pastor explains.

    In comparison, a letter from a teacher or coach, she says, should emphasize a student's academic abilities and attitude toward learning, for example, how they approached and completed special projects and research papers. To get teachers started, Pastor suggests prompts like this one that could spark a discussion in a letter of recommendation from a teacher: “If your student is your top student in the class, explain why.” 
  • Letter writers take note. Letters of recommendation are not about you. Don’t waste space and time in the letter “introducing yourself and your credentials,” Pastor urges. Just state your name, title, and the course that you teach the student. 

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