Counselor resources

How to write a Counselor Letter of Recommendation

We talk about everything that goes into an ideal counselor recommendation letter, from collecting information to the actual structuring out of the letter.

The Cialfo team
May 12, 2022
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6min

The importance of letters of recommendation

Today, many higher education institutions make holistic decisions about students rather than relying solely on grades. Such institutions consider the college recommendation letter a vital tool to determine whether a student is right for them. Most of an application comes directly from the student, and a lot of it is factual information. A recommendation letter is the closest thing the college will get to an objective appraisal of the student from another person's perspective. It is a chance for someone to tell the university why they should be interested in this student, and in a way that illuminates who they are, not just what grades they've achieved. 

Things to consider before starting work on college recommendation letters

Who should write a letter of recommendation?

As their college counselor, you might think that it should always be you who writes it. However, it's worth asking yourself how well you know the student and how much value you add to the letter. If the answer is "not much," it might be worth suggesting that someone else write the letter instead, such as a teacher who knows the student well. Similarly, if you're unable to find anything substantial to say about the student, try to recommend someone else who might be able to help them instead. 

Alternatively, suppose recommendation letters at your school are submitted primarily by counselors. In that case, you can collect input about each student from a few teachers who can attest to their academics or prominent character traits. Then, use that information to put together a recommendation letter yourself. 

What information do you need to collect?

Before you begin the actual work of writing, here are some ways of collecting the necessary information to put into the letter:

  1. Get the student to send you a short resume containing their interests, strengths, and achievements.
  2. Consult their teachers where necessary to get all the relevant details about their academic performance, personal traits and anything else that may be relevant
  3. Depending on how well you know a student, you might want to consider sitting down for an informal conversation with them so you can find out more about who they are.
  4. Many counselors also like to use a parent questionnaire to source helpful information about the student that could support their case for admission.

How to write a great college recommendation letter

We’ve put together some expert tips on writing an effective counselor letter of recommendation for your students. Here they are.

Addressing a recommendation letter

Though ideal to formally address your letter to a specific individual using the appropriate title, "Dear Mr/Ms/whatever XX," it might not always be feasible. If you don't know who you're writing to, address your letter to the Admissions Department or, better still, a person within it such as an Admissions Representative or Officer.

How to start a recommendation letter

First, establish your role and clarify how well you know the student and how long you've known them. Then sum up the student, who they are, and why they'd be an asset to the college as concisely as possible.

It is also important to note that admissions officers don't require you to include extensive background on your professional credentials in the letter.

What to include in the letter of recommendation

Make your letter all about who the student is as a person, not just a list of their achievements. The person reading it will already know all the factual information about the student from their application. The university is trying to discover if the person is a cultural and academic fit for them, so you want to give them a sense of the student's character. What sort of person are they, and how do they interact with the people around them? One of the best ways to do this is by telling stories about the student; anecdotes are a great way of illustrating their character.

Please don't shy away from including background about a student's personal life or family situation that might have a bearing on their academic performance and personal development. This is particularly important if they're a mitigating factor in lower-than-expected grades.

Finally, remember to include detailed contact information and invite the university to contact you if they have any questions.

How to help the student stand out

Admissions staff will be reading thousands of applications, so look for anything that shows how the student stands out from the crowd. Academic excellence is great, but many other people applying will also have done very well in the classroom: what has this person done beyond that? Likewise, try to make the letter as specific as possible to the college the student is applying to – why would they fit in well there, precisely?

Avoid writing anything that might sound like empty praise — back up what you are highlighting with specific examples that illustrate those qualities in the student. Similarly, steer away from cliches: hard-working and motivated are essential requirements, not outstanding personal attributes. 

A well-written recommendation letter can help your student stand out

How formal or informal should the letter be?

Write for your audience. While a college recommendation letter is a formal communication, avoid writing one so dry and stiff that it can't hold attention. At the same time, don't be too informal, as if the admissions professional reading it is your friend. It might help to remember that the admissions officer reading your recommendation letter will probably be a millennial – plan your writing accordingly. 

How long should a college recommendation letter be?

Most experts recommend keeping your recommendation letter to a single page – unless you are using the organized narrative format (explained further) which could run to two pages. Please don't make it too short either, or it might look like you don't have many positive comments about the student. If you can't think of much to say, it might signify that you need input from some of your colleagues who know the student better. 

Ideally, make the letter concise without leaving anything important out: a compact recommendation letter will have more impact than a longer one. Keeping it short and straightforward will force you to focus on what's truly important and make your points as directly and forcefully as possible.

The ideal format for a letter of recommendation

There isn't one single format followed by counselors everywhere for writing a recommendation letter. However, many counselors in the Cialfo community have expressed their preference for the organized narrative style in recent years. 

The organized narrative style of the recommendation letter has four or five separate sections. Hence you don't have to worry about transitions between paragraphs and can even include more information in a specific area if relevant. 

Trevor Rusert, Director of College Counseling at Chadwick International School, suggests having these four sections in your organized narrative recommendation letter:

  • The student's distinctive qualities
  • Their academic history
  • Activities/interests/areas of impact
  • Additional comments

Not only does this style of letter save time, but a majority of admissions officers also prefer it. 

To download a template of the organized narrative letter of recommendation, scroll down to the form on this page. To learn more about the organized narrative style, check out this video in the Cialfo community. If you aren’t a Community member yet, sign up - membership is open to all high school counselors who use Cialfo. 

Counselors use Cialfo to streamline requesting, submitting, and tracking letters of recommendation. If your school does not have a Cialfo account yet, you can sign up for a free account here

We are thankful to Trevor Rusert, Director of College Counseling at Chadwick International School, for his insights into the Organized Narrative letter format.

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