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I was recently asked to write a letter of recommendation for a young women that I coach for a sport. I am aware that she is a good student, however my only interaction with her is through coaching. She is an Olympian and I have coached her since she was a child. I have never written a letter of recommendation. Several of the colleges she is applying to have an online portal where the "letter" is to be written. How might I transform my knowledge of her as an athlete to be of interest to ( -U.S.) colleges ?

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    Do you have any knowledge if she is hardworking, friendly, intelligent, reliable etc? Teamplayer? – user111388 Sep 14 at 16:33
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    Have you been to college yourself? If so, can you think about what challenges you or others around you faced when you were there, and how any traits your student possesses might serve her there? Colleges want to enroll successful students. – Bryan Krause Sep 14 at 16:39
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    Just a remark, no full answer: Admissions may wonder if the athlete will be able and motivated to fully commit to her education, given her time- and focus-consuming athletic commitments. That might be something you'd want to address as well in your letter. – henning -- reinstate Monica Sep 14 at 17:57
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    @user3195446 I think the existing answers have covered my thoughts. Only thing I might add is that there is a bit of a tradition, at least in the US, of very praiseworthy language in recommendation letters. If you think she'd be a good student, say so unequivocally and don't be afraid that "too much praise" would seem insincere. – Bryan Krause Sep 14 at 18:35
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    This question generalizes to non-undergrad letter writers, it has a good number of upvotes, includes several good answers, and made it onto HNQ. Voted to reopen. – Jeff Sep 15 at 15:05
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The skills required to become an Olympian are (with the exception of athleticism and a talent for a particular sport, which I’d imagine are the least exceptional part of the package) obviously transferable to the setting of college education. A letter from you attesting to your firsthand knowledge of the young woman’s skills would be, as others said, extremely valuable and useful to the colleges she is applying to.

My suggestion is that you simply describe your experience of working with her, and what good qualities you are convinced she has based on that experience. Focus on things that would help a college predict that she would do well as a student and enrich the educational environment for her peers. For example, you mentioned she is hardworking and “laser focused”. Those are obviously awesome qualities. Anything else along those lines would be similarly useful. Does she have good leadership qualities? Is she an inspiring person to be around? Etc.

Also, given that you seem to have a lot of experience with the world of international competitive sports, it could help if you manage to describe a bit of that world and put across just how hard it is for a young person to get into the Olympics in your trainee’s particular sport or event. Of course, it’s common knowledge that this is an insanely impressive and difficult thing to achieve, but more concrete details from you are sure to drive home the message that this person has exceptional abilities and would be a coup for any college to admit.

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    +1 I have accepted your answer. I thought all of the answers were immensely helpful. Indeed as her coach I, counter intuitively, tend to see her weaknesses. The crying, the self doubt, the fear of defeat and her personal belief that all of her accomplishes are by pure luck or circumstantial because someone else was injured, did not show or had a bad day. In writing the letter it would seem I have an opportunity to write about how she has overcome all of those issues in order to be #1 in the world. – user3195446 Sep 14 at 18:11
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    @user3195446 incidentally, these issues are not unknown in the academic world. If you're interested, enter "imposter syndrome" into the search box above. – henning -- reinstate Monica Sep 14 at 18:50
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    @user3195446 glad I could help. I’m sure it will be an amazing letter. And incidentally the qualities you mention don’t particularly sound like weaknesses, and are shared by many very successful people (including, as henning suggests in another comment, in academia). – Dan Romik Sep 14 at 19:24
  • @user3195446 I don't think it's counterintuitive at all. You'd be a pretty poor coach if you couldn't see her weaknesses; it's your job to identify them and help her correct/overcome them :) – chepner Sep 15 at 13:00
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A letter of reference from a coach, especially at the elite level, can be extremely valuable for an application. For example, you may be able to speak to:

  • the athlete's leadership and interpersonal skills, such as the ability to build connections with peers and teammates
  • their initiative, discipline, and focus in accomplishing a goal
  • how they might act as a role model to their peers
  • other soft skills such as time management, communication, and integrity

Of course the details will depend on your experience with the athlete. Obviously this person has been successful if they reached the Olympic level so it might be worthwhile to reflect on what qualities of theirs allowed them to succeed, and how those might translate to other areas of life (i.e. school). Personally, I have had a coach write a reference letter for me when I was applying to post-secondary institutions and the admissions committee commented that it made a strong impact.

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Being an Olympian athlete (as a high school student) would be a huge positive to a US university (or service academy like USNA). This is independent of a particular school participating in that sport (which of course would make him/her a target of the coach, bringing in a whole other level of interaction with the university).

By any measure, the undergraduate admissions office will understand the level of time commitment, time management skills, and capability to establish and work toward long term goals that it takes to be an Olympian.

So, yes, write a letter, talk about the person's work ethic, performance, integrity, teamwork, all that you see that has enabled them to become one of the best in the world.

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