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College Counseling Director Michelle Rasich has helped to fine-tune a new, effective format for recommendation letters. Now she's leading the charge to teach her peers about it, and it's gaining traction across the globe.

When College Counseling Director Michelle Rasich and three colleagues from other institutions learned they'd be presenting a conference session in a 20,000-square-foot ballroom at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, they suspected there'd been a miscommunication.

The group was scheduled to give a presentation called "Recs that Change Lives" early on Friday, September 15, at the National Association for College Admission Counseling's (NACAC) annual conference.

"We were convinced there had been a mistake, that this was not the right room for us—we were supposed to be in a smaller room," she said. A coordinator confirmed the roughly 1,000-seat space was indeed for them, and 958 attendees showed up that Friday morning.

"None of us had ever presented to a group that size," Michelle said. "I was more energized than nervous, because I was so excited to have that reach and to be able to affect that many people."

According to feedback from attendees, she and her presenters lived up to the hype. Comments included, "THIS alone was worth the travel to Boston"; "Best I've attended in my 31 years!"; "Life changing"; and "Michelle is amazing. I want to go to every session she does at every conference."

Word had already been spreading on "Recs that Change Lives," organized-narrative letters of recommendation for high schoolers applying to college. Michelle named the concept as a nod to Colleges that Change Lives, a book and subsequent organization of student-centered colleges well-known among college counselors. The letters use a series of headers and bullet points so they're easier for admissions officers to read and simpler for college counselors to write. Specifically, Michelle coined headers such as "Distinctive Qualities" and "College Readiness and Recommendation" based on what admissions officers told her they're trying to find in the letters.

"They're on a scavenger hunt," she said. "They're looking for this, so why not just give it to them instead of making them dig for it."

The Problem

There has to be a better way, Michelle told fellow counselors, to work smarter, not harder, and to better advocate for high schoolers while taking into account the realities faced by admissions officers.

When Michelle started at Rowland Hall in 2010, she devoted ample time to writing traditional two-page letters. "I was spending a lot of time in transition—making sure that paragraph one was logically and smoothly tied to paragraph two," she said. She spent up to two and a half hours on one letter, while a college-admissions officer spent 15 minutes reading an entire 15- to 20-page student file. Accordingly, the number of college applications continues to increase in part due to the Common Application, Michelle explained, but individual colleges aren't necessarily hiring more admissions staff.

While on a bus tour of midwestern colleges with peers from the Association for College Counselors in Independent Schools (ACCIS), Michelle broached the problem to colleagues. There has to be a better way, she told fellow counselors, to work smarter, not harder, and to better advocate for high schoolers while taking into account the realities faced by admissions officers.

Some of Michelle's New England peers discussed a format they'd long been using. It entailed organizing letter content in a more visual way, with headers and bullets, so readers could more easily find what they were looking for, whether that was extracurricular activities or academic growth and trends.

The Data-Driven Solution

We don't want to assume that we're doing our jobs in a way that is beneficial to students and college readers. We want to know for a fact.—Michelle Rasich, college counseling director

So counselors on the ACCIS bus tour mocked up a sample letter, and over the summer, Michelle—data enthusiast that she is—gathered feedback on admissions officers' reactions to the new format. Michelle and Associate Director of College Counseling Coral Azarian care very much about collecting data to assess their work, Michelle said. They regularly poll students, for instance, to track trends related to college counseling.

"We don't want to assume that we're doing our jobs in a way that is beneficial to students and college readers," Michelle said. "We want to know for a fact."

Michelle surveyed the 25 colleges that (a) Rowland Hall students most frequently apply to, and that (b) accept letters of recommendation. Seventeen representatives responded with positive feedback, and Michelle made minor adjustments to headers based on suggestions. She implemented the new format the following school year, and surveyed admissions officers once more. Feedback this time, she said, was even more positive. A representative from Vanderbilt University, for instance, wrote, "I really like the format, as it allows me to focus on a certain section. The categories that you've chosen are helpful and things that we would look for in our process." Other admissions officers encouraged Michelle to continue using the new style and to teach others about it.

Evangelizing 'Recs that Change Lives'

As an alumna of Bowdoin College, Michelle is a staunch believer in the common good. So after admissions colleagues praised the new format in the second survey, she led the charge to share "Recs that Change Lives." She wanted to spread the gospel on this effective method that steered counselors toward a more concise style—Michelle now spent about an hour on each letter—without sacrificing the personal details admissions professionals desired.

For several years, Michelle and her colleagues presented the concept at regional conferences. Traction at that level inspired them to present at NACAC, which opened the floodgates. Every day for a month after that Boston session, counselors from across the world emailed Michelle requesting the presentation materials. Now, six months later, knowledge of the format is nearly ubiquitous.

John McLaughlin, associate dean of the Office of Undergraduate Admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, co-presented with Michelle at NACAC. He's seen more organized-narrative recommendations come across his desk over the past year. The format allows writers to get to the point, he said, which can be useful for recommenders writing dozens of letters. "I think Michelle's work to share the approach has been a key factor in its growing popularity," he said. "It was thoughtful and generous to do that, and that's Michelle."

Michelle likes to bill the letters as a win-win-win: "It's a win for the student, because we are able to advocate more effectively based on the feedback; it's a win for the reader; and it's definitely a win for the counselor," she said. "I always put the counselors last in that equation because that's how it should be focused—the student, the audience, the writer."

Writers may be last in that equation, but they're still reaping benefits. Michelle said public-school counselors have told her time saved writing letters now goes back into spending more nights and weekends with their families. And of course, there's plenty of buy-in here at Rowland Hall, where 90% of teachers who write recommendation letters use the new format. A group of 12 early adopters included Math Department Chair Brian Birchler and English teacher Kody Partridge. Kody said the format keeps her focused on key components of the letter without surrendering to a formula. Brian said it helps him provide a clearer picture of the student, and to do so more efficiently: "As someone who has to spend a long time to write well, the bulleted format really lets me focus on telling the story of a student's experience with mathematics."

Service work by Michelle and Coral continues to bolster Rowland Hall's already-strong reputation in the fields of college counseling and admissions.

Service work by Michelle and Coral continues to bolster Rowland Hall's already-strong reputation in the fields of college counseling and admissions. In addition to regularly presenting "Recs that Change Lives," Michelle serves on a NACAC ad hoc committee and is co-chair for that organization's next annual conference here in Salt Lake City. Coral is the social committee co-chair for that same conference, and currently serves on the executive board of the Rocky Mountain Association for College Admissions Counseling, which Michelle led four years ago.

"Recs that Change Lives" has shone an international spotlight on Rowland Hall, and Michelle is still soaking it all in. "I'm so proud to be representing Rowland Hall at this level and to be contributing to the common good of all counselors and admissions professionals," she said. "This is a career hallmark."

college counseling

Revitalizing the Rec Letter

College Counseling Director Michelle Rasich has helped to fine-tune a new, effective format for recommendation letters. Now she's leading the charge to teach her peers about it, and it's gaining traction across the globe.

When College Counseling Director Michelle Rasich and three colleagues from other institutions learned they'd be presenting a conference session in a 20,000-square-foot ballroom at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, they suspected there'd been a miscommunication.

The group was scheduled to give a presentation called "Recs that Change Lives" early on Friday, September 15, at the National Association for College Admission Counseling's (NACAC) annual conference.

"We were convinced there had been a mistake, that this was not the right room for us—we were supposed to be in a smaller room," she said. A coordinator confirmed the roughly 1,000-seat space was indeed for them, and 958 attendees showed up that Friday morning.

"None of us had ever presented to a group that size," Michelle said. "I was more energized than nervous, because I was so excited to have that reach and to be able to affect that many people."

According to feedback from attendees, she and her presenters lived up to the hype. Comments included, "THIS alone was worth the travel to Boston"; "Best I've attended in my 31 years!"; "Life changing"; and "Michelle is amazing. I want to go to every session she does at every conference."

Word had already been spreading on "Recs that Change Lives," organized-narrative letters of recommendation for high schoolers applying to college. Michelle named the concept as a nod to Colleges that Change Lives, a book and subsequent organization of student-centered colleges well-known among college counselors. The letters use a series of headers and bullet points so they're easier for admissions officers to read and simpler for college counselors to write. Specifically, Michelle coined headers such as "Distinctive Qualities" and "College Readiness and Recommendation" based on what admissions officers told her they're trying to find in the letters.

"They're on a scavenger hunt," she said. "They're looking for this, so why not just give it to them instead of making them dig for it."

The Problem

There has to be a better way, Michelle told fellow counselors, to work smarter, not harder, and to better advocate for high schoolers while taking into account the realities faced by admissions officers.

When Michelle started at Rowland Hall in 2010, she devoted ample time to writing traditional two-page letters. "I was spending a lot of time in transition—making sure that paragraph one was logically and smoothly tied to paragraph two," she said. She spent up to two and a half hours on one letter, while a college-admissions officer spent 15 minutes reading an entire 15- to 20-page student file. Accordingly, the number of college applications continues to increase in part due to the Common Application, Michelle explained, but individual colleges aren't necessarily hiring more admissions staff.

While on a bus tour of midwestern colleges with peers from the Association for College Counselors in Independent Schools (ACCIS), Michelle broached the problem to colleagues. There has to be a better way, she told fellow counselors, to work smarter, not harder, and to better advocate for high schoolers while taking into account the realities faced by admissions officers.

Some of Michelle's New England peers discussed a format they'd long been using. It entailed organizing letter content in a more visual way, with headers and bullets, so readers could more easily find what they were looking for, whether that was extracurricular activities or academic growth and trends.

The Data-Driven Solution

We don't want to assume that we're doing our jobs in a way that is beneficial to students and college readers. We want to know for a fact.—Michelle Rasich, college counseling director

So counselors on the ACCIS bus tour mocked up a sample letter, and over the summer, Michelle—data enthusiast that she is—gathered feedback on admissions officers' reactions to the new format. Michelle and Associate Director of College Counseling Coral Azarian care very much about collecting data to assess their work, Michelle said. They regularly poll students, for instance, to track trends related to college counseling.

"We don't want to assume that we're doing our jobs in a way that is beneficial to students and college readers," Michelle said. "We want to know for a fact."

Michelle surveyed the 25 colleges that (a) Rowland Hall students most frequently apply to, and that (b) accept letters of recommendation. Seventeen representatives responded with positive feedback, and Michelle made minor adjustments to headers based on suggestions. She implemented the new format the following school year, and surveyed admissions officers once more. Feedback this time, she said, was even more positive. A representative from Vanderbilt University, for instance, wrote, "I really like the format, as it allows me to focus on a certain section. The categories that you've chosen are helpful and things that we would look for in our process." Other admissions officers encouraged Michelle to continue using the new style and to teach others about it.

Evangelizing 'Recs that Change Lives'

As an alumna of Bowdoin College, Michelle is a staunch believer in the common good. So after admissions colleagues praised the new format in the second survey, she led the charge to share "Recs that Change Lives." She wanted to spread the gospel on this effective method that steered counselors toward a more concise style—Michelle now spent about an hour on each letter—without sacrificing the personal details admissions professionals desired.

For several years, Michelle and her colleagues presented the concept at regional conferences. Traction at that level inspired them to present at NACAC, which opened the floodgates. Every day for a month after that Boston session, counselors from across the world emailed Michelle requesting the presentation materials. Now, six months later, knowledge of the format is nearly ubiquitous.

John McLaughlin, associate dean of the Office of Undergraduate Admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, co-presented with Michelle at NACAC. He's seen more organized-narrative recommendations come across his desk over the past year. The format allows writers to get to the point, he said, which can be useful for recommenders writing dozens of letters. "I think Michelle's work to share the approach has been a key factor in its growing popularity," he said. "It was thoughtful and generous to do that, and that's Michelle."

Michelle likes to bill the letters as a win-win-win: "It's a win for the student, because we are able to advocate more effectively based on the feedback; it's a win for the reader; and it's definitely a win for the counselor," she said. "I always put the counselors last in that equation because that's how it should be focused—the student, the audience, the writer."

Writers may be last in that equation, but they're still reaping benefits. Michelle said public-school counselors have told her time saved writing letters now goes back into spending more nights and weekends with their families. And of course, there's plenty of buy-in here at Rowland Hall, where 90% of teachers who write recommendation letters use the new format. A group of 12 early adopters included Math Department Chair Brian Birchler and English teacher Kody Partridge. Kody said the format keeps her focused on key components of the letter without surrendering to a formula. Brian said it helps him provide a clearer picture of the student, and to do so more efficiently: "As someone who has to spend a long time to write well, the bulleted format really lets me focus on telling the story of a student's experience with mathematics."

Service work by Michelle and Coral continues to bolster Rowland Hall's already-strong reputation in the fields of college counseling and admissions.

Service work by Michelle and Coral continues to bolster Rowland Hall's already-strong reputation in the fields of college counseling and admissions. In addition to regularly presenting "Recs that Change Lives," Michelle serves on a NACAC ad hoc committee and is co-chair for that organization's next annual conference here in Salt Lake City. Coral is the social committee co-chair for that same conference, and currently serves on the executive board of the Rocky Mountain Association for College Admissions Counseling, which Michelle led four years ago.

"Recs that Change Lives" has shone an international spotlight on Rowland Hall, and Michelle is still soaking it all in. "I'm so proud to be representing Rowland Hall at this level and to be contributing to the common good of all counselors and admissions professionals," she said. "This is a career hallmark."

college counseling

Explore More News In Brief

Chris Hill speaks at the University of Utah,

Rowland Hall Trustee Dr. Chris Hill, the University of Utah’s celebrated former athletics director, will be honored by the U this Saturday, February 8, during halftime of the men’s basketball game against California.

Chris retired in 2018 after 31 years of accomplished service that included transitioning Utah to the Pac-12 Conference in 2011. From football to skiing, and from new-and-improved facilities to the academic success of student-athletes, Utah Athletics thrived under his watch. In October, the former athletics director was inducted into the Utah Sports Hall of Fame, and now it’s the U’s turn to pay tribute. This weekend, Utah Athletics will permanently honor Chris with the installation of a banner in the Jon M. Huntsman Center.

It just means so much to me. Having that kind of recognition is more than one could expect.—Chris Hill, retired University of Utah athletics director and current Rowland Hall trustee

“It just means so much to me,” Chris said of the upcoming ceremony. “Having that kind of recognition is more than one could expect.”

Chris began his tenure as a member of the Rowland Hall Board of Trustees in the 2018–2019 school year. Since retiring from the U, he’s enjoyed extra time for volunteering—he tutors math, for instance, and serves on the Salt Lake County Parks and Recreation Advisory Board. He’s also been staying active outdoors and, most importantly, spending quality time with his family. “Numbers one, two, and three are my grandkids,” he joked of his scheduling priorities. Chris and his wife, Kathleen, are the parents of two Rowland Hall alumni and have five grandchildren, one of whom is a Rowland Hall eighth grader.

Rowland Hall Board Chair Jennifer Price-Wallin, for one, is thrilled for Chris to be recognized by Utah Athletics on Saturday. “This is an incredible honor,” she said, adding Chris brings a valuable collegiate perspective to our board. “We're fortunate to have him as a trustee.”

People


Top photo credit: Utah Athletics

teacher talking to students in class

The Utah High School Activities Association (UHSAA) recently named debate teacher Mike Shackelford the 2019 Speech Educator of the Year—a Distinguished Service Award given primarily for Mike’s work strengthening debate programs not just here at Rowland Hall, but across Utah.

I'm grateful that my job allows me the opportunity to get involved in the larger debate community and make a difference for more kids in the state.—Debate Coach Mike Shackelford

“I'm grateful that my job allows me the opportunity to get involved in the larger debate community and make a difference for more kids in the state,” Mike said. “My mentors—Ryan Hoglund, especially—taught me the importance of giving back early in my career.” Ryan, our former debate coach and current director of ethical education, won this service award in 2007. 

Mike explained that school activities like debate depend on countless acts of service, from volunteer judges to late-night transportation and beyond. “Everyone is working so hard that it seems selfish not to do my part,” he said. “I also love matching the passion and work ethic that my students put into the activity.”

Match, he has. Since he joined Rowland Hall in 2007, Mike has taken on an array of leadership roles and accumulated several prestigious awards:

  • Utah Debate Coaches Association (UDCA) Chair of the Elementary and Middle School Division (2017–present)
  • UDCA Chair of the Novice Policy Committee (2016–present)
  • National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA) State Educator of the Year for Utah (2017–2018)
  • NSDA National District Chair of the Year (2016)
  • UDCA Policy Debate Coach of the Year (2014)
  • National Debate Coaches Association Executive Board (2013–2015)
  • NSDA Chair of the Great Salt Lake District (2011–2016)
  • UHSAA Speech and Debate Representative (2009–2015)

Rowland Hall Athletics Director Kendra Tomsic nominated Mike for the award and confirmed his dedication to debate. “Mike’s classes are full of enthusiastic debaters who feed off his energy and knowledge,” Kendra wrote in her recommendation letter. “He loves working with students in a competitive environment and it shows.”

For the Shackelfords, debate—and the friendly competition thereof—is a way of life: Mike's wife, Carol, won this award six years ago while coaching for Bingham High School. "Now I'm even with her, which feels great," Mike joked.

Mike is the eighth Rowland Hall employee to receive one of these awards.

The UHSAA started their Distinguished Service Awards program in 1987 to honor individuals for their contributions to high school activities. Mike is one of 17 Utahns to be honored this year, and he’s the eighth Rowland Hall employee on record to receive one of these awards. View a list of past recipients in our article on band director and music teacher Dr. Bret Jackson, UHSAA’s 2018 Music Educator of the Year.

Debate

Collage of teachers with books.

Have you read anything good lately?

Publicly sharing titles we love leads to discussion and learning. After all, the kinds of books we choose often tell a little something about our past, present, interests, values, and perhaps even the way we see and experience the world.—Chelsea Vasquez, seventh grade English teacher

Those looking for book recommendations may find themselves combing social media for positive answers to that question. By searching #shelfie or #buildyourstack, users can find a trove of images celebrating the written word: color-coded shelves, beaming readers holding up their favorite novels, children sprawled on furniture lost in picture books. For Rowland Hall students, inspiration can also be found by wandering the halls of the Lincoln Street Campus.

This year, a new bulletin board in the Middle School is acting as a paper-and-ink version of digital shelfies and stacks, displaying photos of the books, magazines, and newspapers faculty are currently reading. At first glance, the board may simply seem like a place to browse for titles, but it offers the larger benefit of promoting a culture of reading by sparking conversations.

“The idea isn't necessarily for kids to read the same texts as us, but to show them that all of us are readers and we're open to discussions about the texts we engage with,” explained seventh grade English teacher Chelsea Vasquez, who created the board. “Publicly sharing titles we love leads to discussion and learning. After all, the kinds of books we choose often tell a little something about our past, present, interests, values, and perhaps even the way we see and experience the world.”

The Middle School shelfie board.

The shelfie bulletin board is displayed to the left of the elevator in the Middle School commons.

Upper School English teacher Kate Taylor agrees. In 2017, Kate created “What I’m Reading” signs for faculty and staff to post on doors to model their love of reading. Like the Middle School bulletin board, these signs act as recommendations, but they also convey an important message: that Rowland Hall is a community of diverse readers. By sharing what they enjoy reading for pleasure—even those titles that may not be deemed “serious”—teachers underscore that all reading is beneficial. Furthermore, Kate said, a diet of light and challenging materials is essential to creating strong readers.

By modeling their love of reading, faculty convey an important message: that Rowland Hall is a community of diverse readers.

“I view reading as both a habit and a skill,” she said. “Both are formed and strengthened through repetition. In reading, like weight lifting, challenging reps develop strength while lighter reps develop endurance. Both have benefits. If we want students to be strong readers, they should definitely read texts that push their understanding and vocabulary, but they should also read lighter, more enjoyable works that simply get them reading to improve their endurance.”

See Our Shelfies & Share Yours

Join the conversation! Share a photo of your book recommendations on social media and tag your posts with #RHshelfies. Rowland Hall’s shelfie projects exemplify how educators find creative ways to develop lifelong readers, and we hope these projects inspire ripples through our larger community of diverse readers.

Community

Girl soccer players walking away with arms around each other.

Rowland Hall won its second-consecutive Utah Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (UIAAA) 2A Directors Cup for excellence across three areas: athletics, academics, and sportsmanship and student leadership.

Athletics Director Kendra Tomsic said the prestigious award, announced July 13, demonstrates that Rowland Hall is home to some truly gifted student-athletes. “I am so very proud of our athletes for their efforts in the competitive arena as well as in the classroom,” Kendra said, “and thankful to our coaches who are so supportive of our student-athletes' academic commitments.”

Strong showings at state tournaments—along with high GPAs—helped Rowland Hall secure its second Directors Cup in the award's nine-year history. The UIAAA recognized seven of our teams for having the highest GPAs among their 2A competitors: volleyball, girls basketball, boys cross-country, boys tennis, boys track, and girls and boys soccer. And top-five finishes at state competitions included first place in 2A for girls soccer, second place in 3A for girls swimming, second place in 2A for boys soccer, third place in 2A for boys golf, third place in 2A for boys basketball, third place in 2A for girls golf, and fourth place in 3A for boys tennis.

The description of the Directors Cup, from UIAAA:

The UIAAA Directors Cup is awarded each year to the top school in each class that demonstrates combined excellence in athletic, academic, and sportsmanship and student-leadership [categories]. Each category makes up a percentage toward a school’s total ranking:

  1. Athletic (40%): The place or position a school team finishes in the state tournament.
  2. Academic (40%): Varsity team GPA.
  3. Sportsmanship and student leadership (20%): School’s participation in UHSAA-sponsored sportsmanship and leadership initiatives.

The top-five ranked schools in 2A:

  1. Rowland Hall: 15.26 points
  2. Gunnison: 13.47
  3. Waterford: 12.8
  4. Kanab: 10.12
  5. Layton Christian: 9.65

Rowland Hall's score also amounted to the fourth-highest point total among all classifications in the state.

Read last year's story about our first Directors Cup.

Athletics

You Belong at Rowland Hall