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4 min read

How to Write Recommendation Letters for Your Students

How to Write Recommendation Letters for Your Students

The weight and responsibility of assisting Title 1 students through the college admissions process is heavy. As counselors, we want to do our best to help bridge students to a happy, successful future. This is often a daunting task, and you know that these students are counting on you to help tell their story through their recommendation letter for college.

One of the most critical aspects of the college admissions process is writing letters of recommendation for your students. 

I will share what has worked for me over the past three decades as a college and career counselor in a large, public, and diverse high school. I’ve molded my process through trial and error, and I continue to learn and improve on it each year.

Here's how to write a recommendation letter, and what to write in a recommendation letter for a student.

Telling Your Student's Story

An important trait you have as a high school counselor is your ability to gain the trust of your student.  

Students who live with a high level of trauma in their life or live in poverty will hold their story close to their hearts. They have numerous obstacles to overcome in order to be active in high school sports, clubs, and organizations. It’s not uncommon for these students to be the adult in their family who welcome younger siblings off the elementary school bus and assist them with homework and dinner. If they don’t have younger siblings, they might work 35 - 40 hours per week to help the family pay bills. Or maybe some are lucky enough to not have to babysit or work, but cannot stay after school because they have no transportation and live miles from the campus. 

Whatever their scenario is, remember that you need to paint that picture to colleges. 

Keep in mind: it takes numerous meetings for a teenager to trust that you are in their corner. Once they know you will go above and beyond for them, you will be able to have a deeper, more meaningful counselor-student relationship and make great progress in the college admissions process, especially regarding their reference letter.

At that point, college fit will begin to surface and you’re on the path to writing a meaningful letter of recommendation for your student's college application.

Gather the Information You Need Early 

My high school has 850 juniors and seniors, so being organized and starting early is key. I’ve found that working with teachers is a sure way to reach students early on in the process. Here’s an overview of the steps I take starting in December of junior year.

1. Present to a class

Schedule a day and time with teachers to present during their regular class period about the college application timeline. This will help set expectations.

2. Hand out a worksheet

Next, ask teachers when they need a break (also known as a grading day) so you can get back into the classroom and provide students a list of questions you need them to answer in order to write a meaningful letter of recommendation for college (more on that next!). Make a deal with them: if they provide you with answers by a date that works for you, you can promise them that their letter of recommendation will be completed by the first day of their senior year (or whenever works best with your schedule).

3. Continue to meet with students

Remind students about the letter of recommendation questionnaire throughout the remainder of the year when you meet with them. 

Pro Tip: If your high school uses Scoir, your students can request letters of recommendation right in the platform

Develop Your Questionnaire for the Letter of Recommendation

The following is the information I request to help me frame the recommendation. Feel free to modify as needed. 

  • List everyone who lives with you including siblings and state if you have other step/half siblings living elsewhere (many students in poverty are not living with biological parents). 
  • Where does your parent/guardian work and what is their job description?
  • Are you responsible for taking care of any siblings? Explain
  • Did either of your parents/guardians obtain a 4 year degree? If so, explain
  • What country were you and your parent/guardian born in (if not the U.S.)?
  • Where and how many hours do you work?
  • What is the biggest obstacle you have overcome or are facing right now in your life?

Be sure you let students know you may use their answers in a letter of recommendation. They have the right to ask you not to use specific details; however, when you explain the importance of special circumstances in admissions, students will typically want their story to be told. They just may not want to be the one to tell it.  The vast majority of students living in poverty do not believe they have a story to tell. To them, it is simply their life.

Tips on Writing a Recommendation Letter for Students

Solid recommendation letters will include the strength of a student’s academic choices on campus, strength of character and leadership, other personal qualities, and how they contribute to your school environment through extracurricular activities. The challenge is combining all of this while also telling their story, especially because every high school counselor or community based organization (CBO) for low income students knows the competition they face when applying to selective colleges. The truth is our students are at a disadvantage compared to middle and upper income students. 

Remember that your audience (college reps) for these letters is probably going to be in their mid twenties! You need to capture their attention early and distinguish your students from others. 

  • An overview of your school in one sentence: Are you a large, public, diverse, urban school? These details matter.
  • Specific examples that make your students stand out:  Give specific examples/stories of your FLI (first generation and/or low-income) student detailing grit, perseverance, resiliency, curiosity, leadership, positivity and dedication. Make sure the statement cannot be used to describe just any student. It must relate directly to them.
  • Details beyond the résumé: Please do not restate this! The college should already have that information. What additional context can you provide on top of this? Have they participated in any great group projects? How did they grow as a result of their extracurricular activities?
  • Power statements: These will ensure that you don’t include generic details that can apply to any student. They are specific, detailed, and make an impression immediately. It’s likely the college rep will simply pull out these sentences, so give them plenty to choose from when they bring your student to committee. Generalities will not make the cut. 

How to Find the Time to Write Letters of Recommendation for Students

Drafting a recommendation letter for a student can be time consuming, especially if you are already overwhelmed with other college counselor responsibilities. 

A key concept for me has been prioritizing my own needs. It can be tempting to stay late or come in early to knock out those letters of recommendation. While it may seem productive, most people's productivity drops dramatically after 55 hours per week.

By taking care of your basic needs and doing things that help you recharge in your free time, odds are you will be more productive when you are writing letters of recommendation for students.

Parting Thoughts 

We, the counselors, have the challenge of finding student stories, especially the high fliers who have taken the most challenging courses, are ranked in the top 10% of their class and have solid character traits.

Yes, it is a challenge to find these students and gain their trust, but it is the only way our students will compete with other non-FLI students in the admission process.

Are you up for the challenge?


This article was originally published on October 7, 2020. It was updated on June 20, 2023 for accuracy and comprehensiveness.


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