Tips for Writing Student Recommendations: Counselors

Letters of recommendation provide you the opportunity to convey a student's character and any personal qualities that test scores and grades alone don't reveal. Learn how you can write an effective college recommendation for your students.

The Value of Counselor Recommendations

Counselor recommendations play a pivotal role in the application process. And for students with mediocre or low scores on college admission tests, your honest assessment of their potential success in college can tip the scales in their favor.

Students who can be most helped by a compelling recommendation include:

  • Merit scholarship candidates at any college
  • Borderline admissible candidates at any college
  • Competitive candidates at the most selective colleges

Also, the more history your school has with a specific college, the more important your recommendation letters become. In sorting through candidates from your school, colleges rely on your candor to help the admission staff make accurate and fair assessments of applicants.

Collecting Information

If you work in a large school or are new to your school, you may have to write letters for students you don't know very well. Solicit information about students using the following printouts that can be found in the Resources section of this page:

  • Have the student complete a self-assessment
  • Ask the student's teachers to fill out a teacher information form.
  • Ask the student's parent(s) or guardian(s) to complete a questionnaire.

Putting It All Together

A clearly written and informative assessment brings the student to life for the admission staff members who read it.

  • Start with an image for the reader that the body of your recommendation develops.
  • Wherever possible, include anecdotal information and specific references.
  • Provide an overview of the student including academic, extracurricular, and volunteer activities.
  • Show not only that a student has succeeded in high school, but also how that student has stood out in some way.
  • Explain why you think a student is a good match for a particular college. This is especially important for early decision and borderline candidates.
  • Discuss the student's personal life if it is relevant to the academic record. For example, if a student has experienced a tragedy that may have affected grades during a semester, you may reveal that in the recommendation (with permission from the student's family and abiding by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA).
  • Conclude with a paragraph that conveys the strength of your endorsement.

For more guidelines on writing an effective letter, print out recommendation dos and don'ts in the Resources section below, adapted from the College Board's College Counseling Sourcebook.