Primary Navigation

Social Navigation

The Importance of the HALI Letter

Sharing Expertise

We are a few short weeks away from Early Decision and Early Action deadlines at many U.S. universities. Whether or not your students are applying to U.S. universities via early or regular deadlines, I thought it might be useful to outline the importance of the HALI letter.

Over the course of my career in admissions, I’m guessing I have probably read about 15,000 applications from all over the world and I have also worked closely with HALI organizations (which has been a total pleasure!).  If there’s anything I’ve learnt, it’s that the HALI letter can be one of the most important documents in an applicant’s file.  Admissions officers find it hard to dig around in the dark when it comes to figuring out who a candidate is and what kind of preparation they have.  Sometimes an applicant is so compelling that we can look over a few areas of uncertainty and admit the candidate, but I would say that this is the exception rather than the norm.  For the most part, the more information and context we have, the better.  

You have a significant role to play in giving admissions committees a sense of who the candidate is and to try as best as you can to pro-actively answer questions that you know an admissions officer might have.  Some admissions officers will follow up with you for more information; others will not.  Ultimately, you don’t want an admissions committee to cast your candidate aside because these questions have not been answered.  

In a nutshell, the HALI letter is a letter from the HALI organization which outlines why the candidate is a strong and suitable applicant for higher education.  More than that, however, the letter can give context that is hard to relay in detail through required documents—teacher recommendations and admissions essays.  The letter can and should give detailed context on a range of things: a student’s schooling (both on national exam results and type of school); background (family, where they grew up); suitability for the U.S. education and culture (adaptability, resilience, initiative, collegiality etc.); details of hardship/disadvantage they have experienced; perceived ‘weaknesses’ in the application (academic or otherwise); how they have grown/changed since they started working with you; difficulties faced taking TOEFL/SAT tests (Did they travel overnight to the test center? Did their village pull together funds to pay for the tests?); financial details that may not be clear when a student fills out the CSS profile or other financial aid forms; the rigor of your own admissions process when you select candidates; and context on the education system in the student’s home country.  

How can I submit the HALI letter?

There are a few ways to do this.  A lot depends on the nature of your organization and whether you are supporting students through the university application process only or providing a longer, more intensive program possibly with an academic component.

  1. The student can invite you to their application to write an “Optional Recommendation” which they can submit alongside their school documents.  There is a category for “College Access Counselor” among the Optional Recommendation list on the Common Application.
  2. If you’re working with the counselor/head teacher/tutor of the student’s high school, the letter could be attached to the counselor letter .
  3. If your program is longer and more intensive (where your organization has worked with the student for a significant amount of time including academic work), your letter should probably replace the standard counselor letter.
  4. If you find that it is not possible for you to submit your letter via the Common App or other application platform, try and find out who in the admissions office reads applications from your country—there’s always a person even though it feels like an abyss!   Once you have a name and an email address, make sure you keep lines of communication open. Ask them if they will accept a letter on the student’s behalf and send it in by the application deadline.  If it’s hard to find out who that person is, send in your letter via email attachment to the general admissions email and ask them to attach it to the student’s application.  Always include the full name of the student and the birthdate.  If you’re not sure this will work, send the letter to the Dean or Director of Admissions AND to the general admissions email 😊

More than anything: try and find out who is responsible for reading your students’ files.  Once you know that person, a relationship can be cultivated.  I found that this was one of the key aspects when working with HALI organizations and students.  The more I knew about a candidate AND an organization, the better—always!

Good luck to you and all your candidates this admissions season.



Rebekah Westphal was Director of International Admissions at Yale University for 11 years.  She is now the Director of the Office of Fellowships at Yale.  Rebekah was the co-founder of the inaugural HALI Indaba in 2016 along with Rebecca Zeigler Mano.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *