What it Takes to Earn a Flinn Scholarship
The Significance of the Counselor Recommendation
Most scholarship and college applications demand that students tell their stories. But there are dimensions to each story that students themselves cannot express; they lack the perspective that your detachment and experience offer.
We hope that the recommendations you write will help us better understand your students, perceive their individual excellences, and value their contributions to their classrooms, school, and civic community.
Unlike your students, you are not bound by word limits. Most effective letters occupy one to two single-spaced pages.
Below are approaches we encourage you to employ.
Orient the Reviewers of the Application
Your recommendation helps reviewers understand your students’ environment. We want to learn how effectively and creatively students have used the resources (curricular, programmatic, human) available to them at their school and in their community, and how they have exercised initiative by making opportunities for learning and discovery where none exist.
This exposition helps us see what features in students’ learning environments are most important to them and helps us account for variations in resource bases at different schools when we compare applicants with each other.
Help us understand your school’s culture, structure and programs: Is volunteer service is expected or required? Are certain awards are decided by faculty or by students’ peers? Was an activity already established or was it launched by the student about whom you’re writing?
Where relevant activities and awards are unique to your school, please explain their significance. And while many criteria by which we evaluate students (grade point average, test scores, class rank) seem straightforward and wholly within students’ control, you can help explain what those data mean at your particular school, and how they relate to students’ other characteristics.
For instance, if one student did not to pursue the IB diploma because the courses conflicted with those in the music program to which she was committed, help us understand that choice. If certain enrichment programs are now available at your school but were not at the time the student took those courses, please let us know.
Assess Progress and Achievement
Teachers may only have a student in their class for a single semester or a year. Many counselors enjoy a longer-term relationship with their students and can provide a different, longitudinal perspective. Reviewers look for patterns of behavior and evidence of developmental changes, maturation, and personal and intellectual growth.
When possible, therefore, use your recommendation to indicate the progress and growth of your student over time. If you represent a school in which a single counselor follows one set of students throughout their high school career, this task is simpler than it is if your school assigns a different counselor to each class (i.e., to freshmen, sophomores, etc.).
Avoid exaggerating claims for the student’s accomplishment or ranking in the roster of students you have encountered throughout your career. Committees do notice when a counselor describes multiple students as “The single best I have encountered in 20 years.” Such misguided claims, while rare, negate the value of that person’s letters for all of the students. You do not have to compare your candidates to each other or rank individual students, especially if you are writing for more than one in a given application cycle.
If you have sufficiently distinguished them in your accounts and highlighted their particular individual excellences, reviewers will draw the relevant conclusions.
Complete the Portrait
Compared to classroom teachers, you may have less frequent dealings with your students, but you have the advantage of being able to situate each student in the context of your schools’ population and culture. You may also be the person most involved in shaping your students’ post-secondary plans. Use your recommendations to clarify students’ thought and decision-making processes for us: What values motivate them in making their choices of college or university or a planned course of study? What kind of learning opportunities do they seek?
We hope your recommendations will describe distinctive contributions your students make to the school and/or civic community--in essence, whether your students recognize that education represents a public benefit as well as a private good.
For example, a student may note in her application that she has worked on the campus clothing drive; if she has left out the detail that she initiated and managed a district-wide competition to see which school could generate the most donations, we hope you will include that information. You might also discuss any provisions they have made for institutionalizing their work, ensuring that it will continue after their graduation, making a lasting contribution to the good of others.
You also have the opportunity to incorporate into your own letter remarks made by faculty other than those your students have chosen to write on their behalf: from coaches, parental volunteers at your school, civic leaders and others who do not know your students in a purely academic setting. Such wide-ranging perspectives can enrich the depth of your letter and the range of insights available about your students.
Toward maximizing the range of insights about your students, we encourage you to meet with the two teachers who are joining you in writing recommendations for a particular student. Convening as a recommendation team adds significant value to your time and efforts by allowing all three of you to coordinate your efforts, making sure that each offers different perspectives and different illustrations of the student’s traits. You want the letters to complement, not coincide with, each other; we should learn something distinctive from what each of you has to say.
Declining to Recommend
We do not want you to write a letter if you have serious reservations about a student’s performance or character. In such a case, you have some obligation to inform the student of the nature and depth of your concerns.
You may also say “no” to a request for a recommendation if the student offers inadequate advance notice (two weeks is usually considered acceptable; three, preferable). If short notice is the factor, please be certain that you have explicitly stated your expectation or policy well in advance of when students will begin requesting recommendations, so that they have the information they need to help you help them.
In either case, however, remember that because the Flinn Scholarship Program requires a counselor letter, your refusal essentially disqualifies a student from applying: a decision that we believe should be made with great caution.
We hope these comments help you and your colleagues. If you would like further assistance or can suggest more effective ways of sharing this (or other) information, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.