Wednesday, September 13, 2023

A 20 Minute Counselor Letter of Recommendation? Yup

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Counselor chat rooms are filled with lamentations about writing college letters for students. I get it—you think this is time consuming, with 100 seniors on your case load. But you just spent three hours a day on schedule changes; why not write up to three letters a day in those three hours?


What’s that—you can’t do a letter in 20 or 30 minutes? Try this:


Plan ahead Most counselors do senior reviews, to make sure seniors will graduate on time, and ask about future plans. Instead, take 30 minutes each morning to review the files of the seniors you’re going to see that day, checking on their graduation status, and reviewing your note from their junior interview on future plans. If you made them complete a junior interview sheet, review that as well. If that sheet didn’t include a “describe a moment that changed your life” question—or if you didn’t have an interview sheet at all-- go back and add it.


Your senior interviews now go something like this. “I checked your schedule, and you’re on track to graduate, and last time we talked, you were thinking about State U for life after high school. Is that still the plan?”


Once that’s tackled, go deeper. “What’s happened in your life you’d like me to tell the colleges about? What has being a student here meant to you? What are two memorable moments from your time here, either in or out of the classroom? What would you like your college experience to be like?”


Time to write Three senior interviews of 30 minutes each leaves you ninety minutes to write three letters.


Intro Start with one of their memorable moments. “Jimmy Jameson didn’t consider himself much of an actor, but then he tried out for the school play on a dare from his friends.” Finish that story in another sentence or two.


Paragraph two You now enter your observations of Jimmy, even if they’re just based on the junior and senior interviews, and other notes or observations, including those of teachers that may have come your way. “That’s the kind of good-natured student Jimmy is. With a strong groups of friends, Jimmy has taken some of our most demanding classes (discussing academic caseload is a must) and done well with them. He also made school history as the first qualifier for the state math competition’s top 100 (what makes him notable—another must), doing all this with a can-do attitude that is open to the thoughts of others and eager to take on new challenges.”


Paragraph three Use the answers to the questions from senior interview to conclude. “Jimmy takes these strong qualities with him to his next school, where he hopes to study Biology as part of a pre-med experience. He looks forward to being part of a spirited college campus, and is eager to share his own skills on the field through club sports. Given his openness to new experiences, I can’t think of a better student to belong to a campus with ample opportunities to try new things.”


That’s it. If the student had unusual experiences that kept them from realizing their full potential, mention that, and ask the college to call you.


With a little practice, this letter takes twenty minutes; tells a story (skip the list of extra curriculars—that’s somewhere else in the application), giving life to the student, and fits on one page, which is a must. Three of these a day gives you 100 letters in seven weeks, just by swapping schedule change time for writing time. More counseling magic.

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