Two Fatal Mistakes with Recommendation Letters (Counselor Buddy!)

Good evening, young champions. Counselor Buddy returns today to give you a very important tip that I never would’ve thought of, and I pepper in comments that I think are helpful, or at least moderately humorous. Let’s get at it.

Hey, I’m not sure if this is post-worthy, but I’ve got a pet-peeve
that I thought I’d share in case you want to work it into a post
some day.

Counselor Buddy is so modest and coy.

Every year we preach to students to take the time to get to know us
(counselors) and some teachers well. We tell them that for many
scholarship applications, and some bigger-named college
applications, they will need letters of recommendation.

You know, I guess it never occurred to me that a student could go all the way through high school and NOT know enough teachers or counselors who could give them a decent letter of recommendation. But I’ve been out of high school for 18 years now, though, so what do I know? Counselor Buddy knows more. That’s why we keep her around!

"You write me a recommendation letter right this minute...or I will blow you from here to Sexytown."

It never fails, I get requests each year from students I barely
know, each resulting in a generic letter that will do them
absolutely no good. I never refuse to write a letter, but if I
don’t know much about the student, I stick to the facts (years
attended, GPA, courses taken, expected graduation date, and
possible activities they have participated in if they give me a
resume with that info).

When C-Buddy says they’ll do the students no good, she means that her letters will be so transparently generic that they’ll be communicating to the recipient the truth that she doesn’t know this student from Adam in any personal sense, and therefore can’t make any sort of real, authentic, hearty recommendation. If a “recommendation letter” is basically a transcript presented in prose, then the recipient knows what’s up.

Not only could I write pages for the kids I know well, but I’m also
much more likely to bend over backwards to help them. I can add
more specific information about their character, work ethic,
personality, strengths and their future plans for the students who
have taken the time to get to know me.

This is an important point that deserves a little more attention. Look, it’s not like you have to plop your ass down in the counselor’s office every day and force uncomfortable conversation about his/her home life and personal interests and the weather or whatever. That’s not what this is about.

Even if you come in a couple of times a semester and just ask a couple of questions about college, careers, financial aid, whatever — that gets your foot in the door with the counselor and will probably lead him/her to start asking more questions about YOU and what you want to do once you graduate. After a few of these meets, then bang, the counselor’s familiar with you and your abilities and plans and is more than able to write a glowing letter about you.

Again, I want to emphasize that is not rocket science, as they say, and anyone can do it. You just have to take the time — and it’s not very much time we’re talking about here — and do it. I’m dead serious when I say that five minutes here and five minutes there every week, doing things that really are NOTHING outstanding in and of themselves, can make a giant difference in your college prospects.

I’m not exaggerating. Remember, these things are all like dominoes. You get a great recommendation or you don’t. If you do, maybe then you DO get pushed over the edge into the acceptance pile into the school you want. Or, you get that full-ride scholarship that saves you from graduating from college with $40,000 in student loan debt. Which equals $400 or $500 extra bucks per month that you DON’T have to pay, unlike all your friends who took student loans.

It can all start with a few words here and there to a counselor. Or a teacher, for that matter. We’re using the counselor example here since Counselor Buddy is the one who put a bug in my ear about the entire issue, which I never would have thought of on my own. But the whole thing can work with teachers, coaches, even principals I’d guess. How often do you think students walk into a principal’s office and say “Hey, I’m Jane Whoever, and I was hoping you could get to know me and the kind of student I am over the next few years, because I’d like to think I’m the type of kid you’d write a college recommendation letter for someday.”

After the shock wore off, I’m sure the principal would probably be OK with it.

The point it, don’t be too afraid or too lazy to do these little things that’ll help you out big-time in the long run.

An addition to this pet-peeve is giving less than 24 hours notice
to write the letter. Telling me they need the letter in two hours
also ensures a letter lacking any personal information. Although,
I have been known to be a sucker for writing no-notice letters for
students I know and like well (bending over backward).

Sometimes Counselor Buddy is way too nice for her own good, but that’s just my opinion. Plus, she has a boss and I don’t, so I can’t be too tough on her. Anyway — seriously, if you’re showing up and asking ANYONE for ANYTHING with less than 24 hours of notice, you are being incredibly rude. I’ll spell it out for you this one time — asking people to stop everything else in the world that they’re doing just so they can meet YOUR needs that have arisen suddenly because of YOUR poor planning is pretty obviously in bad taste.

Plan ahead. Trust me, it’s one of the most important skills you can ever acquire. We’ll talk more about it another day.

Anyhow, just had another couple requests today and I’m already
having a cranky/snarky week, so thought I’d share in case you can
make a mention of it sometime on your site. 🙂

Done, C-Buddy. Thoughts, anyone? Post ’em in the comments section below.

Happy Monday! I’m off to make another pot of coffee. This microwaved Burger King coffee from yesterday is no longer cutting it. Although, if you want a half-price alternative to Starbucks that’s still really good-tasting coffee, try the BK “Turbo” coffee. It’ll surprise you.

44 thoughts on “Two Fatal Mistakes with Recommendation Letters (Counselor Buddy!)”

  1. One thing I was always unclear on, was if those letters of recommendation were supposed to be read by the student or not… are the authors to seal it in an envelope? or do we keep an electronic copy?

    1. Amanda Richards

      The letter is to remained sealed and the student is not supposed to read it. Some teacher’s/counsler will also send you an electronic copy. Some are supposed to be sent directly to the scholarship committee, so always make sure to read directions carefully.

  2. One thing that always annoyed me was when they asked specifically for a guidance counselor’s recommendation, not that of guidance OR teacher. I had several teachers who would have written me great letters, while I had to switch guidance counselors twice. . . and both of them were so incompetent that I knew more than they did about a lot of stuff. What makes them think that your guidance couselor will know ANYTHING more than what you tell them?

  3. I really never had this problem because I went to a small high school. My Graduating class was 36, but it only makes sense that you get to know the people who are there to help you succeed aka the teachers and the counselors.

  4. I agree. I keep an electronic copy of all of the recommendation letters teachers have given me over the years. I get excellent ones, part of the reason I was voted “Teacher’s Pet’ for Senior Elections.
    The one from my Debate, Forensics, and Quiz Bowl Coach (also a good friend and former instructor) makes me cry every time I read it. It is that good.

  5. I’ve been asked to write letter of rec’s for a few students the class period it was due. It’s not fun, and sometimes I say I can’t do it. It’s not fair on the teacher, counselor, or principle who you ask. We want to help students, we love helping students, that’s why our careers are what they are. However, we also put work in to make sure that you letter is something worth reading. Be considerate of our busy schedules, too, and we’ll make sure you have a GREAT letter from us. 😀

  6. Did I need to send you my letters of recommendation cause I didn’t read that on the application for a scholarship.

  7. I think that it is pretty much true that one need to get to know somewhat the person from which he or she would like a recommendation. I have never had to get a recommendation letter for a scholarship, but I did for my senior project. In fact, I had to get two. They were from two teachers who knew me as a result of having me as a student for two years each. Although, it was easier because I was in honors/gifted classes, which are smaller than regular classes, and both teachers taught only or mostly honors/gifted students, meaning they had an easier time getting to know the students. A person will have to adapt to his or her circumstances regarding knowing a teacher. One weird thing regarding getting a recommendation from a teacher is a teacher who said that she would write recommendation letters if we told her what we wanted her to say. I think that defeats the purpose of a teacher’s recommendation.

  8. Counselor Buddy

    SRB: Agreed, like every profession, there are some incompetent guidance counselors out there. I’m sorry you had two poor experiences in a row. A competent guidance counselor should be seeing the whole picture of a student more than the teacher will. We see how well you perform in all classes, your attendance, standardized test scores, behavior reports, and we are typically the people who know at least some background on most students. And more importantly, we see you compared to your entire class, the class before you, and so on. In general, we have a pretty good idea of who works hard, who will be successful at the collegiate level, and who has potential (whether the student uses it or not). Those are some reasons why a guidance counselor’s letter is preferred.

    That being said, it still helps to know *you* in some capacity beyond all that data we have access to. If you ask me to write a letter, I want to be able to help sell you to whomever will receive the letter. As Michael said above, adding in quirky (character showing) tidbits give some authenticity to the letter. And while teachers see you daily and are certainly able to write great letters, you had an excellent point that often you are required a letter from a counselor. And perhaps the two counselors you viewed as incompetent seemed that way to you because they didn’t know you until you were forced to ask them for a letter.

    NA: I agree that you shouldn’t be writing the letter, but I do ask where they are sending the letter. I may write something slightly different for a scholarship versus college admissions versus a leadership program application.

    Leigh: I always allow students to read my letters. In fact, another area Judge Josh has told me I’m too kind on is that I often ask the student to let me know if they feel I have left off something important they’d like in the letter. I try not to be negative in my letters. I think being vague and brief speaks volumes to the recipient. And if I feel that strongly that I cannot write at least a neutral letter for a student (and this has happened), then I tell the student why I feel I would struggle writing a decent letter and refer them to the other counselor in our building.

  9. I think you will find it pretty common for letter writers to ask for “talking point” or as you call it “what we want them to say.” It is a little weird at first, but in college almost every professor has asked for something of the sort. These are all professors that really know me to.

    Try writing something like that: tell them why you deserve the scholarship, if nothing else, it will be a self esteem booster.

  10. Good read as I’m always in search of letters of rec for internships and scholarships..however, I’m not so good at actually obtaining them. My first year of college is about to conclude and I’ve needed various letters of recommendation from professors of the sciences (I’m a bio major) to detail my potential but have not been able to get those but settled for ones from youth leaders and the like. The REASON I have not been able to get such letters is because I can’t seem to reach a middle ground with any of my instructors–either we get to know each other too much to the point where we often argue and I can appear to be a trouble-maker or I’ll be intimidated of them and they won’t know me from any other student. Any tips to reach a middle-ground enough to get an awesome letter of rec?


  11. Ha, so true. I’ve told some of my professors some ridiculous things that they’ve told me they’ve been able to work into their recommendation letters…for example, I’m a horrible insomniac since childhood, rarely getting more than 4 hours of sleep a night. I mentioned it in passing to one of my teachers, who was able to tailor that into a hardship that I overcame- and it looked really good on the letter! Suffice to say I got the scholarship…and things like this have helped me pay for 4 years of college. I’ll come out debt free this May! Whee!

  12. Glad you’re sharing these tips. When it was my turn to apply to colleges, my mother (who never went to college) was the one to help me with the process, and she said exactly the same thing. Ask for recommendations from teachers who know you well, and ask early. Give them enough time to get it done on their own time, but not so long they forget all about it. Good to see that other people are getting that advice too. Some of my best friends didn’t get accepted into their colleges of choice because of simple mistakes like these.

  13. So, what do you do if a teacher says they will write you a LOR, you have given him/her plenty of time and then they procrastinate? You have already put your time into waiting and can’t really ask somebody else.

  14. This is yet another very good reason to be involved in clubs and other extracurricular activities. It’s always best to get a letter of recommendation from a teacher who has seen you at work outside the classroom and knows how dedicated you are to other things besides just making good grades.
    But don’t forget another untapped goldmine most students tend to ignore. Every Joe Somebody can get a letter of rec from their teacher or counselor, as C-Buddy pointed out. Ask community leaders, your boss at work, the manager of that soup kitchen/retirement home/daycare center/etc. you volunteer at on weekends. Most scholarships only require that the letter be written by an adult who is not related to you. It shows the scholarship committee what a well-rounded individual you are if you ask somebody outside of school walls for a recommendation, plus it adds a very personal touch!

  15. Adelaja Ayotunde Adetola

    I guess letter of recommendation should not be a BIG DEAL so far U have a good record in school and during your school days. Even though I was asked to present such a letter so far i can contact the school that isn’t a problem at all and when getting such a vital document make sure it is typed in the School’s letter headed and endorsed by at least three important signatures and appropriate stamps. So from there either the student prof-read it or not thats not the case because some institution want to see only the evidence not the content and the evidence are like your TRANSCRIPT, SIGNATURES OF IMPORTANT DIGNITARIES FROM YOUR SO CALLED SCHOOL, THEIR CONTACT AND STAMPS.

  16. I agree with Justine. You have to know your teachers and give them plenty of notice for writing the letter of rec. It would also be courteous to give a self addressed envelope with a stamp on it to the person writing the letter of rec. It shows you’re responsible and organized. It also makes it easier for the person writing the letter of rec.

  17. I agree very much with you. My student was like that too… More over he had to bug me at home and came for me to rescue…what…? The fact is he does not know that it is rude. Thank you for writing the above. I will let them know of this once and for all.

    Linta Sambudi

  18. I know I had this problem when I switched schools in senior year. I had to ask teachers to write me a letter after only knowing me in class for about two months, which meant they were getting in under the wire as far as applications are concerned.

  19. Counselor Buddy

    I guess I should have wrote “as Michael said *below*”. Not sure what happened there, I posted my comment yesterday evening after Michael commented but I’m posted above him.

    Terry: We’ve had the same problem occasionally in our school… the teacher means well and plans to write the letter, but gets busy and forgets. I think it would be appropriate to give the teacher a couple gentle reminders. If you know a few of the staff well enough, it would even be wise to ask for a couple additional LOR from other teachers, then choose which ones to submit when your deadline arrives.

    Teresa K: As I was scanning the comments again, I just realized you might be referring to my cranky/snarky week. This week is better, thank you! 🙂

  20. This is great info. I wish someone gave me this advise when I was still in high school because even though I talked to my teachers, counselors, and even my principals, I didn’t bother to ask any of them to write me a letter of recommendation. I didn’t ask them any questions about any future plans that I’ve had except the fact that I was planning in joining the military. With this advise though, it IS going to come in handy because my baby sister is currently a freshman in high school. She has a lot planned for her future and I’m going to give her this advise to push her closer to her goals. Thank you very much.

  21. Well what I did to ask for a recommendation letter to my teacher is to write a formal letter. This was my junior year so by the time I applied for college, I was all set. It included the reason for the letter, my feelings and time int he class and a copy of my resume. Then I just wait till June when they have written ALOT about me and then I take it. I also gave a thank you letter which I felt made them feel better. It’s because of those I think I got into colleges my colleagues didn’t get into.

  22. I have a question I’ve been dying to ask someone:

    How do I save copies of a recommendation letter? Especially if they need to be sealed and signed by the author. Because I often need several letters of recommendation for scholarships but I do not have an endless supply of people to write them for me. So do I ask the author for several copies of the same letter? or do I need to go to them every time I need a letter? This is also tricky because different schools and scholarships have different requirements or need specifics in a certain areas. How do you recommend I go about this dilemma?

  23. Counselor Buddy

    Chelsea, I typically have students ask for up to 10 copies at once and students who come in repeatedly to ask for additional copies. They use the copies for scholarships that do not require the letter to be sealed by the author. I have also had students come in and tell me they need a few copies sealed/signed individually and I will do that as well. I keep all letters on my computer, so it takes seconds to print off the required amounts on letterhead. I bet if you ask, most would be willing to do the same for you.

  24. i’m having a hard time getting to know and be known by teachers and counselors in my school. they are always too busy to speak to the students and i’m guessing they don’t really care. the caring teachers do not teach me. even in my extracurricular activities the teacher in charge doesn’t show up, what more get to know us. Where else can i get recommendation letters? i am fairly active in my church and another christian organisation but i’m afraid these won’t be recognised as legitimate sources. when we graduate we have a list of all the activities we’ve done in school and sometimes outside school and those that i’ve done there are not considered as legitimate enough to even put in that record. what do i do? help! i am so clueless about applying for scholarships even since my school doesn’t help us with it..

  25. Back n highschool n 75, I had my science teacher write a letter of recommentdatin for me, and it was on the money. I also had a good counselor.

  26. to the fact about recommendations is that it depends on the people who know the most…because the experience you had with the student will have the best effect on a great recommendation.

  27. Maybe as an older student (56), I can add something helpful to this conversation. I try to always deliver more than is asked of me. Over the 2 years I have been studying art, I have had some advisors who know me well, refuse to write letters for me because they think a different staff member may give more weight in a reference. I seldom settle for sending only the obligatory 2 letters. I probably include 5 or 6.
    I send emails to my former classmates and instructors when I am changing something in my life and from time to time ask them how they are. Many become my online friends. I return to the schools to look in on some of their classes. I also ask so many of them for letters, that if someone takes too long to deliver, it is not really a life or death situation.
    I had a friend who was really struggling for funding (not yet 20). She asked someone for a letter; and although he had promised, he forgot at the last moment and left the school without leaving her the letter. We scrambled to find someone to help her meet her requirements for submission. If you hedge your bets anywhere, hedge them here. They can decide to throw out too many letters; but if you need 2 and you are unfortunate enough to be in my friend’s position, asking a lot of teachers to cover you is a really good plan. I think that she was given a small bit of latitude for the deadline. I know both the student and the person who forgot to leave the letter well.
    Plus, even the nicest people will not always write the most politically polished letter. I have someone who will write my letter within an hour of my request. But she will always stick to basics. Then I have those who will make me wait because they procrastinate worse than students. They give glowing reports. She is program director; we probably talk several times every week. But, as far as I can tell, she sticks to a SAFE approach. The others are more relaxed and more energetic in their support. It is not enough for her to KNOW I do things, if she has not personally witnessed them.
    I don’t know what she puts in a letter, because it is always sealed. The one I saw initially was part of an unsealed form that left room for comments. She didn’t seem to have any and, yes, she likes me enough to have recommended me for a bank competition over the other more (what I consider) skilled students in my glass program!
    I always include sealed and unsealed. One of my teachers will write it out by hand, and then I have to type it for him to be printed out so he can sign. Some get sent via email and are not signed. That is how I manage. The approach has worked in that I have begun to receive awards.

    I always suggest that whatever you find that might work for you, get good at it and then do lots of whatever it is when you see it working! I have begun to sincerely enjoy the process of applying. I also try to let people know that even if they don’t select me for awards, I have won by being allowed to develop my skills through the application process.
    By the time they actually give me an answer, so much time has gone by, I just can’t hang onto the possibility that I may or may not be awarded. But the college I attended asked us if we would work for $250 – $500/hour. They then pointed out that if we applied for the bursaries they offered, that was how the payoff felt. I have continued to expand my efforts to be included in the payoff.

  28. The counselor that knows me pretty well retired in the summer, and this is my senior year… That worries me, so how should I be able to contact her when she’s retired? Should I ask another teacher or the new counselor whom I don’t really know?

  29. I definitely wish I’d be given tips for my future way back in grade nine. Not that I’m having much trouble. I just wish I had known about certain resources so I could have found out about a really lucrative scholarship with a little more than one week’s notice. I’m really lucky to have grown close to my guidance counselor though and she wrote a great letter for me. I felt really bad for asking her for a letter that had to be finished by the end of the week.

  30. To me i do not have a problem of recommendation since before we leave highschool we are given letters of recommendation known as leaving certificates which is self explanatory about your character, behavious , your participaton in school and this will enable you to join any college or university.

  31. And don’t forget, even the teachers who know you well will not just jump and write your letter. My son asked for one from a teacher, his mentor, after Christmas break. Her response, she doesn’t write them after New Year’s. She didn’t publicize it, but in her opinion a student should have seen their need prior to that time.

  32. I agree. Considering I just graduated this year. I spent my four years going to the guidance counselor and she has seen me done all those times. She learned so much from me, she is very proud of me, and she helped me out so much. I generally thank you her a lot. The last year, I spent from April to the end of the year everyday in her office and she see me motivated, positive, and happier than I have been all in my life. She knows what I want to do in life and my goals. It really does make a huge difference for a recommendation letters.

  33. I’ve had a number of recommendation letters written for college, and, evidently, they worked. I got into Ringling College of Art and Design, and was overwhelmed by the amount of scholarships I received! Sadly, I have NO IDEA what any of these LOR’s said, although I am sure I can trust they were good, because I knew each professor and counselor very well. I would be very interested in knowing what they said, and compare them to future LOR’s that I will need to get into graduate school. I had to supply the address for each school to each writer of these LOR’s, the contact person, etc., and THEY SENT the letters, without any help from me at all (although I did supply stamps for each LOR). One professor handed me two LOR’s for scholarships, but they actually had wax seals on them, so I couldn’t open them and read them. I was very lucky for my undergrad degree (I graduate in May 2012) but now have to go through the entire process for graduate school. In fact, if anybody knows of the trials and tribulations of going to graduate school overseas, I would be VERY interested in hearing them! I also have found the tips and tricks on this website to be invaluable. So, do what they suggest, It worked for me! Thanks much!

    Alan R. Neal
    Sarasota, Fl.

  34. Obviously this article was written by someone whose school doesn’t charge a $5 fee every time you want to talk to a counselor like my school. 3 counselors for 2000 students mean that your counselors don’t know you and don’t care.

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