Most colleges request a letter of recommendation from your high school guidance counselor. This letter serves a unique function in the college admissions process. The counselor is expected to describe your high school environment, place you within the context of your peers, and discuss your unique attributes. “Many college and university admission officers use the counselor recommendation to learn more about the school and the community of the student applying for admission,” says Shawn Abbott, assistant vice president and dean of admissions at New York University.
While your teachers will focus on your academic strengths, your counselor can provide insights about your character, values, and goals. As stated by Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, recommendations “help us look past the numbers and learn more about who the student is.”
Hamilton College’s admissions office advises counselors to “take the time to tell us things we wouldn’t learn elsewhere in the student’s application… To be sure, the single most important factor in our decision-making process is the high school transcript. But your comments and insight provide us with perspective and help us assess fit with our community.”
What questions are asked of counselors?
Beginning with the 2015-16 application year, the Common Application developed a new form for counselors to complete. The Counselor Form consists of several prompts to help admissions officers learn more about who you are as a person and as a student:
- The duration and context in which you’ve known the applicant (short response)
- The first words that come to mind to describe the applicant (short response)
- A broad-based assessment addressing topics like academic and personal characteristics, contextual comments for the applicant’s performance and involvement, and/or observed problematic behaviors that an admissions committee should explore further (long response)
Understanding the recommendation process
The ratio of students per guidance counselor varies widely around the country, but the average is a staggering 476 students per guidance counselor. At most public high schools, there is no dedicated college counselor; instead, guidance counselors incorporate college advising within all their other academic and disciplinary responsibilities.
Some high schools have put procedures in place to help counselors obtain personalized information on students. At Midwood High School, in Brooklyn, which has two counselors for 800 seniors, the guidance office prepares a folder for each senior that includes their contact information, test scores, teacher recommendations, a student profile and autobiographical essay, and a “parent brag sheet” with anecdotal information.
But not all high schools have such an organized and comprehensive system for collecting personalized information about seniors. As a result, the more you can do to help your counselor understand who you are personally, the more effective his or her recommendation letter will be.
How can you help your counselor describe you as effectively as possible?
The strongest recommendations paint a well-rounded portrait of who you are. With that in mind, here are some tips:
Develop and maintain a strong relationship with your guidance counselor. Make regular appointments throughout each school year. Keep your counselor informed of your achievements in academics and activities. In the fall of senior year, stop by to discuss how you spent your summer.
Create a detailed resume that describes your extracurricular activities, internships, employment, and volunteer work in detail. Try to be as descriptive and authentic as possible, and don’t use generic phrases.
Write a 1-2 page letter to your counselor describing your strengths, values, and goals—if your counselor does not ask you to complete a form or essays. Reflect on the following questions, and provide thoughtful responses. If possible, provide specific anecdotes to illustrate your points:
- What are a few significant experiences that have influenced who you are today?
- What obstacles or challenges have you been faced with, and how did you overcome these?
- How do you approach your schoolwork?
- What are your relationships like with peers, teachers, and advisors?
- How have you improved your community?
- What academic areas of study in college interest you? How do these areas relate to your academic accomplishments in high school?
- Do you have specific career goals at this point?
In addition, provide your counselor with a list of colleges you are currently considering applying to, as well as specialized academic programs if applicable.
For guidance on recommendations and other aspects of the college admissions process, feel free to contact us at www.collegiategateway.com. As always, we’re happy to help!