When Common App announced its decision to remove the school discipline question beginning next year, it marked the start of an effort to transform a document that has remained fundamentally unchanged for nearly five decades: the college application.

As part of this evolution, we’ve begun to ask how we might also reimagine letters of recommendation. The observations that counselors and teachers provide about their students can offer valuable context for admission officers. At the same time, the process of writing these letters is full of inequities, from caseload size to innate writing ability to knowledge about what colleges value.

And then there is time. For counselors, writing these letters competes with other priorities, not least of which is safeguarding the social and emotional health of students. For teachers, the letters represent work above and beyond their core responsibilities. 

According to the 2019 State of College Admission report from the National Association for College Admission Counseling, over half of colleges attribute considerable or moderate importance to letters of recommendation in their evaluation of students. This context raises an important question: how can we minimize work for counselors and teachers while maximizing value to colleges through relevant information about a student? 

An innovative and growing group of educators are rethinking how they approach recommendations.

Michelle Rasich is Director of College Counseling at Rowland Hall School in Salt Lake City. For the last few years, she and her teaching colleagues have replaced traditional letters of recommendation with “structured narratives.”

“I realized I needed to work smarter, not harder,” Rasich explains. And she was not alone in feeling that way. A growing number of counselors from both independent and public schools realized that the old way of providing recommendations wasn’t sustainable. Informally, they partnered with college admission officers to design a new approach to sharing information about their students, one that would benefit both the writer and the reader through concise, meaningful information about student performance, potential, and character.

The construct is simple. Rather than formal letters, these narratives group student attributes under clear headings like “distinctive qualities” or “readiness for college” -- headings that are flexible and tailored to either the school, the student, or both.

Scott Anderson, Senior Director, Common App

Sometimes the information is bulleted, negating the need for exposition and transition, extraneous literary devices that take words and time but don’t communicate anything about the student. For these reasons, Rasich has found that this format is supportive for less experienced writers. It also helps focus the recommender in ways that a traditional letter does not. Most importantly, it saves time while allowing counselors and teachers to communicate more information in less space.

So what do colleges have to say about this approach?

 “We love the structured narrative. It encourages counselors to stick to the facts and share the information in an easy-to-read format. It has to be simpler and easier for counselors to write. It is easier for admission counselors to read.”

Lauren Sefton, Senior Associate Director of Admission, Rhodes College

Rick Clark, Director of Admission at Georgia Tech, agrees and offers that he and his colleagues regularly recommend the structured narrative format to counselors and teachers.

In the spirit of highlighting best practices from innovators within our profession, here are some specific actions counselors and teachers can take as application deadlines approach:

  1. Know a student’s motivations for asking you to write. The most effective recommendations, regardless of what form they take, are ones that are informed by the student’s insights. With the help of our counselor advisory committee, Common App has created student “Brag Sheets,” one for counselors and one for teachers. By asking students to complete and return these documents, counselors and teachers can be more effective advocates.
  1. Play with the structured narrative concept. There are no hard and fast rules about how to migrate from a traditional letter of recommendation to a structured narrative. Counselors might consider headings like distinctive personal qualities, academic history, areas of impact, and engagement with the community. Teacher sections might include intellectual growth, curriculum engagement, impact on the classroom, interaction with peers, and reaction to a setback. Educators should reflect on how they have represented their students in the past and create a structure that works best for them.
  1. Share these ideas. Everyone is looking for ways to do their work more efficiently, especially as we adapt our work to new challenges. If the structured narrative works for you, let your colleagues know.

Common App is committed to partnering with counselors, teachers, and colleges to reimagine--and perhaps redefine--the college recommendation. Those conversations and the research needed to inform them will take time. In the meanwhile, as counselors and teachers seek to balance writing letters of recommendation with the other demands of their jobs, the structured narrative offers a potential win-win-win strategy that benefits writers, colleges, and, most of all, students.