The only thing harder than writing recommendations for all of your students who are applying to college is writing detailed, personalized recommendations for each and every one of them in the time that you have.

And while it may be difficult to give these letters the attention they deserve, you need not resort to a Mad Libs, fill-in-the-blank–style form letter to produce recommendations that do their job and leave a lasting impression.

Patrick O’Connor, Ph.D., associate dean of college counseling at Cranbrook Schools and author of College Counseling for School Counselors, says a personalized recommendation accomplishes two things. “Its primary goal is to give the college a sense of the student’s role within their current school—who they are, what they’ve been interested in and basically what they mean to the community. The secondary role is to make sure the college is aware of any unusual circumstances that may have affected the student’s performance or life during their time at the high school.”

To get a better sense of just how O’Connor pulls this off, he has translated his writing process into a guide. Whether you’re doing the writing yourself or offering advice to your fellow teachers, you may find his model helpful for penning personal letters that tell colleges what kind of students and people the applicants are.

Establish Your Connection to the Student

A great way to start is to jump right in with a story about the student, a conversation you’ve had with them or a memorable event they’ve shared with you. It can be anything that in your eyes gives the reader a clear understanding of who the student is.

O’Connor suggests focusing on storytelling to describe the student. “If you’re trying to say the student is a leader, it’s best to point to an example of that leadership,” he says. 

Reveal What’s Behind the Grades

The recommendation is a good place to talk about the degree of challenge in the student’s curriculum. Have they taken the most demanding classes your school offers? Most of them or some of them? If you have comments from teachers who aren’t writing letters for the student, use your recommendation to capture a summary of their comments. The same is true for including any insights about the clubs and organizations in which they’ve participated, either in or outside of school. As you mention these activities, you may also want to share anecdotes or examples of what they’ve achieved.

Call Out Extenuating Circumstances 

The first half of the recommendation is designed to speak to the student’s strengths. The second half can be used to address any issues the student may have faced, such as the semester their grades were affected due to a period of poor health or the challenges they’ve had in meeting their full potential on the SAT® or ACT® exam. (If there are no issues to flag, move to the letter’s conclusion.)

When addressing these concerns, the key is to focus on how the student has overcome them. For example, you can discuss how their grades have rebounded since they recovered from the illness or how their academic work is impressive, despite lower test scores. Emphasizing how the student met the challenge shows the school the kind of resilient, determined individual they are getting.

If there are confidential issues you’d prefer to discuss on the phone, you can always ask the college to call you. Otherwise, conclude with a clear statement of support for all the qualities the student possesses. Combined with the stories you’ve shared, you will give the college a strong sense of who the student is and how they have contributed to their high school community.

Letters of recommendation are a valuable piece of a student’s application, but when you’re responsible for producing a volume of them every year, they can become burdensome and take significant time from your other college guidance activities. To avoid getting consumed by these letters—or falling into the trap of writing generic letters that don’t serve your students as well as they should—use this guide as a starting point for you or your fellow teachers to help make the process more streamlined and effective.

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