Q & A: What's in That Letter?

Updated: Apr 6, 2019

I recently had the pleasure of speaking to two different groups of college bound students. One was mostly 9 - 11th grade and the other was 11th and 12th graders. I say college bound because these students participated in groups and programs that put them on the path to high school. Honestly speaking, some students aren’t on that path, but these groups were. They asked me a variety of questions that are common for students who are in the various stages of preparing for and applying to college.


Although my area of expertise is the high school – college transition, I want to take some time to address each of the questions I was asked. I do have some knowledge of the application and admissions process, as a former high school teacher, but I will happily acknowledge that college admissions is not my strong suit. However, I’ll share what I know. The next few blog posts will answer the questions I was asked. Let’s start with the underclassmen’s questions and work our way to the seniors.


Question: What do they (teachers/coaches/mentors) put in a letter of recommendation?


Answer: At this point, high school underclassmen are positioning themselves to have strong college applications, test scores, and recommendations. I cannot speak for everyone. I can speak for myself as both a letter writer and letter reader. Essentially, I have a template for starting each letter:

· General information about the student (class, major, college/career aspirations)

· How long I’ve known the student and in what capacity

· A few academic and personal characteristics (e.g. work ethic, attitude toward learning, ability to work in a team, etc.)

· An example of one of the aforementioned qualities

· School and community activities

· How the student is a fit on the campus/for the scholarship


Having said this, it is important to note that many schools (or scholarship organizations) ask specific questions to unveil other characteristics and qualities (e.g. Please describe a situation when . . .). If a student has interacted with me frequently enough, I can easily write this letter, regardless of the specific questions. I can provide an anecdote at the drop of a hat. Those students I do not know well present a challenge when writing recommendation letters.


All of this is to say get to know your teachers beyond knowing each other’s names and recognizing faces outside of school. Develop relationships with the people who will vouch for you when it’s time to enter college and/or seek funding. Your teachers, coaches, and mentors are the people you will ask to submit academic and character recommendations during that process. Make sure they feel comfortable associating your name with theirs.


Next up: How do I stand out?



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