Academic journal article Professional School Counseling

Fourteen Ways to Write a Better Letter of Recommendation

Academic journal article Professional School Counseling

Fourteen Ways to Write a Better Letter of Recommendation

Article excerpt

Letters of reference written by high school counselors play a critical role in the college application process. Although research points to the validity of past performance (grades, entrance exam scores) as a predictor of future college success, relying solely on these measures ignores other important factors such as drive and motivation, institutional values, and nonacademic outcomes of college (Breland, 1983). Letters of recommendation, often read by as many as seven committee members, help critical decision makers learn more about students who have applied for admission (Jones, 1990; Mellott, Arden, & Cho, 1997).

The reference letter can thus be viewed as one part of the communication process, involving the message source, the message itself, and the message's recipient (Loher, Hazer, Tsai, Tilton, & James, 1997). However, unlike a sports coach who pours over game films to assess a player's potential, the writer of reference letters uses words to dazzle and persuade decision makers (Aamodt, Bryan, & Whitcomb, 1993). A counselor uses these words to fulfill two objectives-to conform or amplify information provided by the applicant, and to help predict the applicant's future success.

Although writing letters of recommendation is a critical responsibility of the high school counselor, a limited amount of information on how to write an effective letter appeared in a review of the literature. Consequently, this study, querying both writers and readers of letters of recommendation, was initiated in order to expand the body of practical knowledge available to high school counselors.



High school counselors. A questionnaire was mailed to a random sample of 103 high school counselors located in the Southwest, stratified by urban/rural locale, including both private and public institutions. The initial query returned 37 responses, and a subsequent follow-up by mail added an additional 7 responses, for a total of 45 returned questionnaires (44%).

The mean age of the responding school counselors was 46, with 29 counselors being female (64%) andl6 being male (36%). Thirty-eight of the counselors (84%) self identified as European American (White), with an additional three (6%) identifying as American Indian and two (5%) as Hispanic. Respondents reported an average student-counselor ratio of 410 students per counselor, with each counselor writing an average of 44 letters each school year between November and March (ranging from 2 to 400 letters written).

College admission committee members. Similar requests were sent to a 60 college admission committee (CAC) members randomly selected from universities identified by Peterson's College and University Almanac (1998) as being in at least the moderately difficult entrance category Fourteen CAC members initially responded, and a follow-up reminder yielded an additional two respondents, for a total of 16 (27%). The mean age was 39, encompassing 11 males (69% ) and 5 females (31%). Ethnicity was primarily White with only one Asian American self-identified. Respondents indicated that they read an average of 3,937 letters of recommendation each during the application period (ranging from 200 to 17,000 letters read).


Subsequent to a review of the literature and after consultation with local school counselors, the author created questions that seemed to encompass the essential components of good letter of recommendation writing (See Appendix). Several of the questions sent to both counselors and CAC members were the same, for example, "What tips can you give for writing good letters of recommendation?" Some were different, for example, CAC members were asked, "What causes an immediate positive reaction when you read a letter of recommendation?"


Because the questions yielded qualitative data, frequency counts were made under each question category. Similar responses were then grouped thematically to provide the summary suggestions reported below. …

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