The only thing harder than writing recommendations for all of your students who are applying to college is writing incredibly 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 cave to a Mad Libs–style form letter to ensure your recommendations are effective and memorable.

Patrick O’Connor, Ph.D., associate dean of college counseling at the Cranbrook Schools and author of College Counseling for School Counselors, says a personalized recommendation does 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 shepherds this all, he has broken down 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 their own letters for the student, insert a summary of those comments here. The same is true for any insights about the clubs and organizations in which they’ve participated, either at or outside of school. As you mention these things, you may also want to share anecdotes or examples of things they’ve done. 

Call Out Extenuating Circumstances 

The first half of the recommendation is designed to speak to the student’s strengths. The second half is useful for addressing any issues the student may have faced, like the semester their grades were affected due to poor health or the challenges they’ve had in showing their full potential on the SAT® or ACT® exam. (If there are none, move into the letter’s conclusion.)

It is most important to position these things with how the student has overcome them. For example, you can talk about how their grades have rebounded now that they aren’t sick or how their academic work is considered to be impressive, despite lower test scores. Emphasizing how the challenge was resolved shows the school what kind of individual they are getting. 

Ask the College to Call You — If Necessary

If there are confidential issues you’d rather talk about 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 told, you will give the college a strong sense of who the student is and what they have meant to your high school community.

Letters of recommendation are a valuable piece of a student’s application, but if you’re fielding multiple requests per semester, they can add up to a sizable amount of time. This guide is meant to serve as a starting point for you or your fellow teachers to help streamline the process so you can have more time back in your day. 

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