What Is It That Sets Your Athlete Apart From The Crowd? Writing College Recommendation Letters

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Update: If you are a high school athlete, or a coach who wants to give advice to your athletes on the college recruitment process, I have posted this article that provides advice on five major concepts to help with the college recruitment process.

What is it that sets your athlete apart from the crowd?

It’s no secret in the rowing world that there are opportunities available for high school athletes to row in college. If you are a coach of a high school athlete, it is possible that you may have to write a letter of recommendation for one of your athletes. It is equally possible that the recruitment coach or head coach of a college team that is looking at your athlete would like to have a conversation with you about that athlete. I’ve been through this process a number of times during my tenure as a coach. I’ve had athletes that have gone on to row at Ivy League schools and other schools and varying levels in the college rowing scene. Additionally, I’ve written academic recommendations for countless seniors in my profession of high school Chemistry teacher. As a result, I’ve had a great deal of experience with this process. Here are my top six pieces of advice when communicating with college coaches.

  1. Put the letter on your club letterhead.

It’s true that the first bite is with the eye. Take the time to put your athlete’s rec letter on your club letterhead. Ideally, you would have a template file made up with your club logo, website contact info etc. This immediately sends a message about the organization of your club to the college coach you are contacting. By accomplishing this important first step you are communicating with another coach that your athlete is involved in a well-run and structured program. This also helps build your relationship with the college program and could provide other opportunities for some of your younger athletes in the future.

  1. The length of your letter should be about one page.

A one-page letter is not a hard and fast rule, however, good writing should be concise and focused. Therefore, I would advise writing one page recommendation letters. If you can’t get your message across in one page, chances are you may be redundant and possibly rambling on. You must remember that your letter has to communicate your message in a short amount of writing. College recruiting coaches have a heavy workload and may not have time to read a letter that is two or more pages long.

 Download Sample Recommendation Letter 1

Download Sample Recommendation Letter 2

Download Sample Recommendation Letter 3

  1. Include the athlete’s erg score in the letter.

In the sport of rowing, the GPA or SAT score are 2km and 6km ergometer times. These are largely considered the performance benchmarks for college recruitment. These benchmarks are different for other sports and you will be familiar with what they are in your area of expertise. Hopefully, your athlete has been doing their part and communicating with the coach and has provided erg times, race results and other performance benchmarks. Include official times that you have witnessed or have been verified by one of your coaching staff. I provide this advice because it holds everyone accountable and provides all involved with a level of expectation about the performance ability of the athlete. Good college recruiters will also verify these scores through other means.

I have had the experience during my coaching career when a parent of an athlete has filled out an online questionnaire and reported 2k times that they wished their kid had rowed in the hopes that they could get a scholarship. This is dishonest and looks really bad for the athlete when the college coach finds out the actual times from the athlete’s coach. As part of your college admissions responsibility as a coach of high school athletes, you should be educating your parents and athletes about the correct way to apply to college. In short, it is the athlete that should be doing the work and not the parent.

If your athlete’s best time is a 7:55 then state that and not the time they wished they had rowed. With that said, you can document your opinion of the athlete’s potential to improve given how hard they are working. This opinion may also depend on what time of the year you write the recommendation letter. It may also involve an evaluation of the growth that the athlete has made during the period of time they have been involved in your program.

  1. Communicate what separates your athlete from the rest of the pack.

This is the most important part of your recommendation and serves to help differentiate your athlete from the rest of the crowd. Your athlete’s erg times might get their foot in the door in recruitment, however, being a successful rower and member of a program, at any level, requires many more skills and abilities than just pulling a great 2k time. It is important that you provide some feedback about the athlete’s personality and character. College rowing coaches will be communicating with a number of recruits that may have similar ergometer or performance benchmarks and this section helps to differentiate your athlete.

Here are some suggestions for content that you could include in your letter. I would suggest mentioning a few of these areas to communicate the strengths of your athlete.

  • Work ethic
  • Initiative
  • Diligence
  • Teamwork
  • Collaboration
  • Emotional Intelligence
  • Conflict resolution
  • Perseverance and resilience. (How does the athlete handle disappointment?)
  • How does the athlete behave/perform when not training?
    • For example, how do they handle trailer loading?
    • What kind of a fundraiser are they?
    • What other ways do they contribute to your program?
  • Leadership Ability
  • Character, honesty, and Integrity
  • How coachable is the athlete?

Ultimately, your perspective on an athlete will be formed from thousands of interactions that you have had with the athlete. It’s also important that your athletes know this from day one if they aspire to row in college from an early age.  I would also recommend including some form of anecdote that illustrates one of the above points. This provides a better indicator of the personality of your athlete and also lends credibility to how well you know the athlete you are writing about.

  1. Be honest about your athlete’s development areas and share your concerns.

It is important that you also state what your concerns are about your athlete, if appropriate. If the athlete has been inconsistent, or the athlete is sometimes late to practice the recruiting coach needs to know about this. Nobody is perfect and this can help a coach know what they will need to work on if they decide to recruit the athlete.

Additionally, the recruiting coach wants to know if the athlete in question is a good bet. This can be a difficult one to forecast. I’ve coached athletes in the past that I was convinced would go the full four years only to quit after the first year. The opposite is also true, some athletes will surprise you and complete four years of college rowing.   This is a tough one, but provide a reference based on what you think at the time you write the letter.

  1. Conclude your letter with your contact info.

A good college recruiter is going to do their homework and your letter or verbal recommendation is a part of this process. It’s a good idea to provide your contact information in the letter. This can be in the concluding paragraph or after your signature and title.

It is also conceivable that you may only have a conversation with the coach and there is no need to write a letter. I recommend reviewing points 3, 4 and 5 before you have the conversation with the coach so that you have a plan in place before communication.

In Summary

Writing a college recommendation letter can be an important part of the recruitment process. Ideally, you are also developing relationships with other coaches and that can only help the chances of them recruiting your athletes. This process might seem time-consuming, however, your job as their coach is to support and serve your athletes and help get them to the next step of opportunities in their career.

I hope that the above can provide a framework for your writing and I provide a few sample letters for download below as some of the examples of recommendations I have written for my athletes in the past.

If you have any feedback about this post or have suggestions for improvement, please don’t hesitate to contact me at neil@coachbergenroth.com.

 Download Sample Recommendation Letter 1

Download Sample Recommendation Letter 2

Download Sample Recommendation Letter 3

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