Recommendation letters are a crucial component of a student’s college application portfolio. In addition to letters from teachers and coaches, many colleges require a recommendation from a counselor as well. Especially for large districts where a counselor may have hundreds of students in their caseload, this can be a challenge in the midst of an already very busy college application process.
A well-crafted recommendation letter is one of a counselor’s strongest tools to advocate for students–and they can make a huge difference in application outcomes. In the NACAC’s State of College Admissions Report, counselor recommendations were found to be the 7th most important admissions factor–above teacher recommendations, class rank, and extracurricular activities.
In this post, we’ve assembled some tips and tricks from our college counseling experts on how to coordinate and write powerful counselor recommendations.
#1: Be clear about confidentiality
Before you get started, it’s important to clearly communicate with your students about the confidentiality of the recommendation letters. Most schools mandate that all letters be confidential–meaning it’s the counselors’ responsibility to collect letters and send them on students’ behalf, without the students ever seeing them. Communicate clearly and often about your school’s policy, so students understand that they won’t have the ability to read or provide feedback on the letters before they are submitted to colleges.
#2: Create a counselor recommendation questionnaire
A counselor’s job is to put the student in perspective for the college, in comparison to the rest of their graduating class. However, many counselors (especially those with large caseloads), may not have gotten a chance to interact frequently with each student on a personal level. In order to understand what is unique about the student and be able to clearly communicate their academic interests and goals, have the student fill out a questionnaire that will inform your recommendation. Here are a few sample questions to include:
- How would you describe yourself in five words?
- Complete this statement and explain why: “I am a lot like [insert fictional character or historical figure], because…”
- What do you like to do in your free time?
- What is your strongest non-academic trait? Give a recent example of this trait in action.
- If a teacher walked into your classroom and gave you a choice for your final class assessment, which would you choose and why? A) a multiple-choice test. B) an oral exam. C) a paper. D) a project.
- What experience, extracurricular, or job are you most proud of participating in throughout high school? Why?
- How does your family affect your college-going plans?
#3: Create a reference shelf to help other counselors
If your staff includes multiple counselors with caseloads of students, compile some paper and digital resources to help them as they’re writing their recommendation letters. “How to Write Powerful Letters of Recommendation,” by Susan Whalley, is a great example.
#4: Differentiate your letter from a teacher recommendation
Teacher recommendations, while also important for a student’s application, typically focus on the student’s personality, work ethic, and impact on the classroom environment. Counselor letters should place the student’s abilities in context over time–how do they fit within the school’s overall demographics, curriculum, and test scores? Are there special circumstances beyond the classroom that have impacted the student?
#5: Gather data
In addition to the counselor recommendation questionnaire, consult other sources to glean insights about the student before writing your letter. Email their teacher, coach, or family member to ask about their passions and interests. Review their cumulative file, transcript, and resume to paint a full picture of their academic portfolio. Read the student’s college application essays to understand how they want to represent themselves to admissions officers.
#6: Include anecdotal information and personal insights
Admissions officers want to get a sense of who an applicant is as a person. Consider opening your letter with a story or anecdote that represents some aspect of the student’s personality or interests. Explain why you think the student would be a good culture fit for the college. And include details about the student’s personal life if it’s relevant to their academic record (although be sure to get permission from the student and their family first).
A robust document delivery and application platform like Transeo College can also help counselors coordinate hundreds of recommendation letters every college application season. If you’re interested in learning more about how our solutions can transform student readiness at your school, get in touch with us today!