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How to Write a Counselor Rec Letter + Example

What’s Covered:


An important part of any student’s college application is their letters of recommendation, which includes a letter from their school counselor. Although counselor rec letters normally won’t make or break a student’s admissions chances, they do provide admissions officers with important insight into a student’s character, accomplishments, and personality.


So, it’s important for counselors to take writing rec letters seriously and try to make them as detailed as possible to help their students get a leg up in the admissions process.


Want to save time writing letters this fall? Use our free AI Rec Letter Assistant to cut down on the time you spend drafting letters. You’ll get a first draft in minutes that you can then edit and polish.


How Important Are Counselor Rec Letters in Admissions?


In all honesty, recommendation letters are nowhere near the most important aspect of a student’s college application. Other factors—most namely a student’s academics, extracurricular activities, and essays—play a much larger role in determining whether a student is accepted or not.


That being said, letters of recommendation shouldn’t be overlooked. According to a survey from the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, 15% of colleges say counselor letters have “considerable importance”, while 46% say they have “moderate importance.” 


The main goal of counselor rec letters are to convey personal qualities or background/context about a student to help admissions officers better understand who this student is. These letters aren’t intended to recite a student’s achievements already highlighted on other portions of the application, but rather to explain how they were able to accomplish what they did and why it was impressive given the skills of the student or the larger context of the school.


It is also important to note that, in recent years, recommendation letters have been placed under more scrutiny for being biased and a bit arbitrary. The quality of a letter normally has more to do with the writing skills of the counselor or teacher than the achievements of the student. Given that, what is said about a student could vary widely depending on who writes their letter. Unfortunately, there are instances where racial bias is reflected in rec letters, and white students are described more favorably than students of color.


How to Write a Counselor Rec Letter for College


1. Gather Information


A generic rec letter isn’t doing anyone any good. Without thorough details and specific stories about your student, the admissions officers reading the letter won’t feel compelled to accept that student. That’s why it is so important you do your due diligence up front and collect detailed information about the student before you start writing.


There are a variety of sources you can turn to for information:


  • Personal interactions with the student
  • Brag sheets from parents or students
  • The student’s teachers or faculty members who know the student
  • Academic records and comments on report cards
  • Extracurricular advisors


When you are gathering information from these various sources, you want to think specifically about the student’s strengths, achievements, and personal qualities that shine through. The more sources you have to speak on different aspects of the student’s character, the better prepared you will be to write a strong letter.


2. Outline the Letter


Before you start writing, it’s a good idea to outline your thoughts according to the general structure of recommendation letters. This should look like an introduction, discussion of the student’s character, highlights of their academics, examples of their extracurriculars, and a conclusion that ties it all together.


Starting with the introduction, this should be a cordial greeting to the admissions committee where you provide an overview of the student’s best qualities and why they should be considered for admission. 


A strong rec letter will contribute to a student’s overall application theme. This is a common thread woven through all aspects of the application to make students easily identifiable and memorable to admissions committees. The introduction should shed light on the student’s theme. For example, if their theme was a passion for medicine, your introduction should hint that what’s to come will include discussions of their biology classes and time spent volunteering at a local hospital.


The body of the rec letter is where the details and specific stories you collected in the first step will come to life. A good flow to follow with your body is to begin with academics, then discuss extracurricular involvement, and then highlight specific traits the student possesses or important background details about their home or school environment.


The academic paragraph should include details like their GPA or class rank, the challenging courses the student has taken, subjects the student is particularly passionate about, and testimonials to their work ethic. 


The extracurricular paragraph (or paragraphs, depending on how involved they are) shouldn’t go over all of their activities—rather, highlight two or three particularly meaningful activities this student is a part of. Discuss qualities the student exhibits as a result of participating, for example, leadership, determination, creativity, compassion, etc. When you are picking what extracurriculars to highlight from the student’s resume, go for ones that best relate to their theme or where the student has accomplished the most (leadership position, award recognition, etc.).


Another important aspect of the body is the discussion of a student’s character. While it’s a good idea to mention admirable qualities when writing about their academics and extracurriculars, dedicating a paragraph to their positive characteristics will drive your point home. This can be more overarching than the other paragraphs, but if you have good examples to demonstrate their character outside of what you’ve already mentioned, go ahead and include that!


You might also want to take space in the body of your letter to address extenuating circumstances, or simply provide background context, to help admissions officers better understand the student’s situation. It’s up to you how much you wish to include, but sometimes a counselor explaining the context for certain trends in a student’s application is enough for admissions officers to not penalize the student for things outside of their control.


Once you’ve included everything in the body, you can end your glowing review with a recap of what makes your student special and a few sentences about why you believe they would be a good fit at that university. If the student is applying to a school-specific program, it can’t hurt to throw in the name of the school/program. However, if the student is asking for the overall Common App rec letter, then you should simply address the schools as “your institution” or “your college”.


3. Write the Letter


If you do the heavy lifting of creating a thorough outline, full of details about the student, then writing it should be a breeze. However, here are a few tips to keep in mind as you write:


  • Maintain a professional, positive tone throughout the letter.
  • Tailor the letter to the student however you can. Include their name throughout the letter, the school they are applying to, and make sure your examples relate back to their application theme.
  • Use the STAR method when providing specific examples. This tried-and-true interview method involves describing the Situation or challenge a student was presented with, the Task or role they played in that situation, the Action they took to address the situation, and the Result from their actions.
  • Keep it concise. Try and limit your letter to a page so you only focus on the most important details and don’t overload your readers.


If you need help structuring your rec letter or creating a first draft, our AI Rec Letter Assistant will generate a letter perfectly tailored to your students with minimal effort from you!


4. Review and Finalize the Letter


The importance of proofreading can’t be understated. After you finish writing, make sure you go back and check for grammatical errors, incorrect facts, or poorly-worded phrases. Especially if you are using a tool like AI to help you draft a letter, make sure you read through and correct any mistakes. AI can include biases or incorrect information, so don’t submit anything until you’ve read through it and edited it.


The final steps of a rec letter are signing and sending it out. While you used to have to seal and mail physical copies, most universities will accept digital rec letters now. You’ll likely upload your letter to a digital portal, like the Common App, and it will automatically be sent to whatever school your student is applying to.


Example of a Good Counselor Rec Letter


I am writing to give my highest recommendation to Jessie for your undergraduate program. Over the past three years, I have had the privilege of knowing Jessie as her school counselor, and have witnessed her incredible growth as a student, a community leader, and an aspiring math educator. Jessie’s great passion for mathematics is paralleled by her commitment to fostering inclusivity and giving back to her community, making her an exceptional candidate for your college.


Jessie’s dedication to her academic pursuits has led her to exhaust the highest level of mathematics offered at our school by her sophomore year. Undeterred by this limitation, she enrolled in multivariable calculus and linear algebra through a dual enrollment program, exemplifying her drive to constantly challenge herself. Jessie’s love for math has inspired her to pursue a career as a math teacher or professor, and I have no doubt that she will inspire the next generation of students.


Jessie is a star student and is high-achieving in all her endeavors. She is ranked third in the class of 500 students, has a 4.32 weighted GPA, and a 35 ACT score. Outside of the classroom, she is the student body vice president and captain of the track team, where she has earned three varsity letters and placed second in regionals in the 800m event.


However, what sets Jessie apart is her innate desire to help others. Realizing the need for accessible tutoring in our school, Jessie founded Math on a Mission, a free math tutoring program aimed at assisting low-income students. Her initiative has grown from a simple idea to a team of 10 dedicated tutors who offer both in-school and after-hours support. This program not only showcases Jessie’s resourcefulness and leadership skills but also her deep-rooted empathy for her fellow students.


As student body vice president, Jessie has been instrumental in implementing measures to make our school more inclusive and welcoming. She’s established a free pantry where students can give and take food, as well as a free closet where students can give and take gently-used clothing. These resources have made a significant impact on the lives of her fellow students, as the majority of our district is low-income and receives free or reduced lunch.


In all my years as a counselor, I have seldom come across a student as passionate, driven, and committed as Jessie. Her unique combination of academic excellence, leadership, and a genuine desire to make a difference in the lives of others make her an ideal candidate for your institution. I wholeheartedly endorse Jessie for your college, and I am confident that she will not only thrive in your academic environment, but also make a lasting impact on your campus community.


Thank you for considering my recommendation. Should you require any further information, please do not hesitate to contact me.


What Worked Well


This is a great example of writing a letter that contributes to and supports a student’s application theme. In the introduction, the counselor pointed out the student’s passion for mathematics and her commitment to giving back to the community, and the rest of the letter honed in on those two qualities.


By following a coherent structure, the letter flows nicely from academics to extracurriculars. The counselor did a nice job of weaving Jessie’s personal traits into the academic and extracurricular paragraphs, which makes the examples more poignant.


This letter doesn’t read like a summary of the student’s resume; it genuinely captures the essence of Jessie, revealing exactly what type of student she is and will continue to be.


What Could Be Improved


This is a pretty solid example of a counselor rec letter, but there are two small things to be aware of. 


The first is the third paragraph which lists out the student’s accolades without providing further detail. While it’s okay in this letter because of how detailed and focused the rest of it is, in general, you should avoid simply listing out achievements like GPA, ACT scores, and medals or honors because admissions counselors will find that information in other parts of the application. Unless you can connect it to something about their personality, save your limited space to expand on things that aren’t front-and-center in the application.


The other thing this letter didn’t do was provide us any context about the student’s home or school environment. Sometimes there might be nothing to say, which could have been the case here, but it’s always important to consider what background might be helpful to admissions committees to better understand this student before you begin writing.


Want More Example Rec Letters?


Just as we advise students to read example essays to inform their writing, looking at example counselor recommendation letters will help you get a grasp on what to write. You can also use our AI Rec Letter Assistant to generate examples for you to work of off. 

Short Bio
Lauryn is a student at Cornell University. She has been working at CollegeVine for over three years as a blog writer and editor.