Wednesday, September 23, 2015

A Quick Refresher on Counselor Letters for Colleges

By: Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Most high school counselors are enjoying a very small window of change.  With the challenges of schedule changes behind them, counselors are now gearing up for writing letters of recommendation for college applications. 

At first, this seems like a great opportunity—what counselor wouldn’t want to spend time talking about the best attributes of their students?  But when letter writing is folded into all of the other fall counseling duties, and the number of letters that need to be written is considered, the joy can quickly fall away.

The best way to keep the joy in your task—and the joy in the letters—is to keep these simple rules in mind:

Paint the big picture.  Teacher letters talk about what it’s like to work with a student in class.  Counselor letters talk about the student’s role in the school and the community.  Leader?  Thinker?  Team builder? Artist?  Rebel? What do they give to the school, by simply being themselves?

Tell a story.  She coordinated the town’s clothing drive when the south end of town flooded, including her own house. His version of America the Beautiful brought tears to everyone at the Labor Day picnic.  Every visitor to our school spends a couple of minutes marveling at her painting in the front hall.  
Each sentence has 18 words or less, but brings the reader to your community.  Leave the adjectives in the thesaurus; show them, don’t tell them.

Cut to the chase.  Don’t bother rewriting the laundry list of activities and awards your top students have earned.  That’s somewhere else in the application.  Focus on what matters—which award is the most significant, or unusual?  What club did they start on their own?  What role do they play in your school?

Point out the bumps in the road.  Colleges need to know that the B in Advanced Math is because of a final exam that was taken the day after her father lost his job, or that sophomore year was a wash because his parents divorced.  Mention the adversity, and point out how the student conquered it.  Colleges can only understand the context if you share it.

Finish on an up note.  Based on who they’ve been in high school, what will they give to their next school?  A curious mind?  A disciplined approach to creativity?  The quiet voice in class discussion no college can live without?  You’re a counselor—find the good in a student, even if it’s a work in progress, and share that with the college.

Do what you can.  Yes, counselors at some private schools do write three page letters of recommendation for some of their students.  But those counselors have 50 seniors on their caseload, not 500.  Tell the college you’re swamped, put together a solid paragraph on what separates this student from everyone else, and invite them to call with questions.  That’s more than enough, given all you have to do.

Don’t believe me?  This column is way shorter than most of mine, but it had a lot to say.  I did it; you can, too.


  1. Hi. I work at a private school and the cheap shot about our caseload was unnecessary. Plenty of charter public schools have very small caseloads. We, as counselors, are all in this together whether we have 10 students or 1000. This information is useful for every counselor.

  2. Thank you for this! I've been bogged down lately and not feeling that my letter are all that good. This was helpful for me to read to keep it in perspective.