A Guide to Recommendation Letters for College Admissions

“Be nice to your college counselor – we write your letter of recommendation.” These words stood out in bold white letters on a bright red coffee mug that sat on my office desk for years. The cup’s blunt advice always received a chuckle from students and parents, likely because the suggestion was a gentle reminder of the role I played in the student’s college admission process.

A Guide to Recommendation Letters for College Admissions | Image

The Value of Recommendation Letters

Like the college essay, letters of recommendation hold significant value in a holistic admission review. Colleges evaluate these letters to gain a deeper understanding of a student’s potential to be successful within their school community. Success is evaluated far beyond the numbers. A student’s character, leadership, intellectual curiosity, and drive to make a positive impact are all sought-after qualities. These attributes are often highlighted in a counselor’s letter.

Behind the Scenes of Recommendation Writing

Throughout my eight years on the “other side of the desk” as a college counselor, I wrote 300+ letters advocating for students, highlighting their unique qualities within 1,000 words. Each personalized letter took significant time to draft – no two letters were the same and cutting-and-pasting from one letter to another was simply not an option.

But, in reality, I didn’t know every student to the depth in which my letters expressed. Any college counselor can attest to how challenging this aspect of the job is. Some students spend hours with their counselor discussing their passions, political issues that sparked a reaction, research projects, sports, arts, and more. Others do the required 50-minute meeting and then are seldom heard from again. Nevertheless, the letter must be drafted. Counselors go to incredible lengths to acquire student information from those who know them best. They turn to teachers, advisors, coaches, and others within the school community for insight. Students are observed on countless platforms, including on stage, in the studio, and on the athletic field. Regardless of any situation, counselors reflect on their student’s potential as observed on their very best days.

The Power of the Recommendation Letter

For many students and parents, the thought of a school professional holding this level of power through their written letter is daunting. Students are required to sign the FERPA agreement, granting permission for school administrators to share supporting documents with colleges (transcripts, letters of recommendation, etc.). This is necessary in order for college application files to be complete. As part of this agreement, students and parents are also waiving permission to access the letters written on their behalf. Colleges are only interested in letters that grant recommenders full autonomy for an honest reflection. This can be nerve-wracking for those who are especially anxious.

Student and Parent Input in Recommendation Letters

However, although students and guardians are not permitted to submit their own letter of recommendation to colleges, they have more say in what goes into their letter than they realize. Of the many community members counselors turn to for insight, counselors often provide a platform for students and parents to also share their perspective. The information provided, if thoughtful and thorough, can have an incredible impact on the strength of the letter. For counselors responsible for supporting hundreds of students, it’s nearly impossible to draft such personalized letters, and colleges are aware of this reality. For the counselors who are fortunate to work within a manageable caseload (30-70 students), drafting detailed letters is more realistic. If your school’s college counseling office requests a Student Questionnaire and Parent Questionnaire, take full advantage of this opportunity. Counselors welcome and encourage each questionnaire to be thoughtfully completed, providing insight they may not otherwise receive.

Common Questions in Student and Parent Questionnaires

Questions often asked in a student questionnaire:

  • What are your principal strengths and personal qualities? These can be personal and/or academic in nature.
  • Is there anything regarding your personal story that your counselor should know and share with colleges? Think about unique circumstances that would help an admission officer understand who you are and your journey.
  • Tell me how you spent your last two summers. Provide detail about your experiences.
  • What REALLY matters to you and WHY?
  • Reflect on an idea or an experience that has been important in your intellectual development, OR detail an accomplishment (since 9th grade) that has given you a sense of pride.

Questions that may be asked in a parent/guardian questionnaire:

  • Since entering high school, describe one or two turning points in your child’s development while in high school and explain why you view them as such.
  • Which specific events have made you especially proud to be your child’s parent? Tell me about them.
  • How does your child face challenges? Is there a particular obstacle that your child has overcome or is dealing with? Please elaborate.
  • What qualities do you admire most in your child? Please elaborate.
  • Please offer an anecdote about your child that illustrates individuality or values.

The Importance of Authenticity

It’s important that students complete their own questionnaire – sharing their voice, not the parent(s). Parents have their own platform to share information. Often, when parents take over both, the responses to the questions read the same, providing no new information from one document to the other. Counselors need to learn about a student’s experience through their lens which is unique to their own experiences. This same advice can be applied to college essays – students, write your own college essay! From my observation, students who “take the wheel” and own their process are the most successful in college. Displaying maturity and respect through this journey allows all advocates to declare a student’s preparedness for the next chapter.

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All of our blog posts are written by Former College Admission Officers who serve as members of our admission consultant team.

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