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How to write effective college recommendations

Letters of recommendation provide you with the opportunity to convey a student's character and any personal qualities that test scores and grades alone don't reveal.

The value of counselor recommendations

Counselor recommendations play a pivotal role in the application process. According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s 2011 State of College Admission report, nearly two-thirds of colleges and universities attribute considerable or moderate importance to counselor and teacher recommendations in determining which academically qualified students they would choose for admission.

So, when all else is equal between two applicants, a recommendation from you can pull a lot of weight. 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.

According to Terry Cowdrey, vice president and dean of admissions and financial aid at St. Lawrence University in New York, those 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

The more history your school has with a 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

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, adapted from the College Board's College Counseling Sourcebook.