Advice for Surviving Recommendation Letter-Writing Season

Kat Coy offers advice on how to gather the information to write the letters.


September 11, 2017

A couple of years ago during the fall season, I was at the dinner table with my two sons, Travis (almost 4 at the time) and Gabriel (7 months). Gabriel was starting on solid foods and Travis was trying to help. He was cheering him on, distracting him when he was crying, grabbing a paper towel when some food spilled on the floor, and was over all just completely mystified as to why you wouldn’t want to eat solid food. It was truly a character-revealing moment and a great glimpse into the heart and soul of my darling eldest son.

Because I am a high school counselor and knee-deep in letters of recommendation, I thought to myself, “That would be great to mention in his letter of recommendation one day.” Then the crazy light bulb went on and I realized I needed to check my work at the door and not start planning letters of recommendation for my 4-year-old!

Alas, in my world right now I am thinking about unique adjectives, purposeful rephrasing and 100 ways to state that little Johnny is just a “great kid” -- without stating that, of course. The letter of recommendation has come to serve as a great source of support in a student’s application for admissions. That puts counselors in a precarious position: we have to know our students, write a quality letter and do that in addition to the other 500 things on our to-do list.

There are some easy things to keep in mind when tackling the letter of recommendation. I hope that sharing some of these tips and tricks I have stumbled upon during my 10 years as a high school counselor can help put you at ease during this process. Here are some suggestions.

1. Get to know the students you need to write about! I know that seems obvious, but with high case loads and heavy responsibilities, this can be a major task. I have found two invaluable things to help me get to know my students: student-written counselor surveys and a parent brag survey. I actually will not even have a senior meeting with students unless they have completed the counselor survey. I read the counselor survey before our meeting, and that gives me the opportunity to question any interesting things mentioned to potentially use in my letter of recommendation. Last year, I found out that one of my students’ mothers had breast cancer and she had never told anyone at the school. In my counselor survey, I ask them some of the following.

  • Fun questions: How would your friends describe you? If you could have a superpower, what would it be?
  • Basic questions: What do you want to be when you grow up? Did you have any schedule conflicts that I need to mention? What are you really good at? Have you worked during your high school years?
  • High school-specific questions: What have been your favorite memories of high school? What was your favorite class and why? Has our community changed because you were here, and how?
  • Serious questions: What is the most difficult thing you have had to face? What has changed you? You are in a room with the college admissions staff from your No. 1 college pick. There is only one spot left. What do you want them to know about you?

For the parent brag survey, the questions are geared toward an understanding of the child as a whole. I feel sorry for my child’s future counselor, because you all can see I have been writing his brag survey since birth. The parent brag survey can help me write an incredible letter, and I encourage you to try to incorporate this into your program. In my parent brag survey, I ask them some of the following questions.

  • Choose three to five adjectives that describe your child and give one anecdote to support each adjective.
  • In what areas have you witnessed the most growth and development in your child in high school?
  • Your child’s high school years have been pleasurable/painful because … Feel free to comment on both aspects.
  • Are there any special circumstances your child and/or family has encountered that the counselor should be aware of?
  • Describe any family factors that influence your child’s choice of schools. These could include finances, legacies, the location of the college, family expectations, etc.

2. Focus your writing on what is not found elsewhere in the student’s application. Your letter is not a time to list all the clubs and sports that little Johnny has participated in; they see that already on the activities list. However, this can be your time to bring to light any unique or interesting tidbits in relation to their résumé. For instance, I don’t typically write about how many Advanced Placement courses a student has taken, but I did last year when for the first time in the school’s history a student took 11 AP courses. Though they can count that he took 11 on the transcript, I thought it was important to note that no one ever had before. Another unusual thing I chose to write about was a student who founded a Ping-Pong club. Though being founder and president of this club is on his activities list, I wasn’t sure that someone from outside the school could take this club seriously. For them to see past the title of a club, I wrote about the 95-person tournament he organizes every year (bracket style), the money he raised and the charity that received all of the proceeds. Therefore, it is OK to expand upon what is on the transcript or activities list.

3. Don’t be afraid to get creative! I was talking to an admissions representative one time about letters, and she said she wished she could tell people to write letters that they themselves would like to read. I had to pause and really digest how profound a statement that really was. She is right -- the people reading these letters are often no different than you or I (except probably much younger and with more energy). I know that I love to hear stories that really encapsulate the student. I don’t necessarily need to be dazzled by the lofty language and creative prose that requires me to use to look up uncommon adjectives. Therefore, when I had a student who was infatuated with Latin, I went to the Latin teacher and got her to give me a couple of Latin phrases to put at the top of my letter. When I had to write for the editor of the paper, I used a headline to draw the reader in. For my graphic design student, I wrote about the door to my office. It is adorned with 14 inspirational quote/photographs designed by this student. These are the letters that admissions representatives have mentioned to me later that they remember (“Hey, you are the counselor for the Latin girl?” True statement on a college tour).

4. Keep it to a page. I have had some two pagers in my career, but those really have a story to tell. For most of my students, I try to write about the essence of the student, expound upon their academics or extracurrriculars, and then summarize anything worth noting. I like to focus on these two phrases when I get stuck: “What I like best about …” and “What sets this student apart is ….”

5. When in trouble, throw a lifeline! There have been several times when I just can’t get the letter going. That is when I get out of my office and hunt down any and all faculty members who have ever interacted with this student. I go armed with a pen and paper and ask them to tell me any stories they can to help me write this student’s letter of recommendation. I have found coaches can be a gold mine of stories and sometimes experience such a different side of our students.

The bottom line is to take a deep breath, gather any and all resources that you can, and sit down to write a letter that you would want to read. Keep it real, keep it unique and don’t feel bad sharing a story or two. Now, back to writing some more letters.


Kat Coy is chair of school counseling at Knoxville Catholic High School.


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