Jul 9, 2012

The Common App Changes Counselor Recommendation Options

St. Mary's College of Maryland
In changes due to be implemented on August 1st, the Common Application (CA) will “officially” offer guidance counselors the option of not submitting recommendations or evaluations on behalf of students using the Common App to apply to member colleges and universities. 
For the first time, counselors will have the option of checking a box on the School Report Form indicating they will not be submitting an evaluation for a particular student because either “The demands of my counseling load do not afford me sufficient time” or “I do not have sufficient personal knowledge of this student.”
“Guidance counselors with huge caseloads don’t always provide specific student evaluations with their school reports,” commented one admissions dean at a local liberal arts college.  “We understand what the problem is.”
But not surprisingly, a number of colleges absolutely requiring counselor recommendations are not too happy at the prospect that counselors working with smaller or less demanding caseloads may feel officially authorized to skip what they consider a key component of the application. 
“We’ve communicated our concerns to the Common App,” said an admissions representative at a highly selective Midwestern university.  “We’re hoping this doesn’t turn into a problem.”
While the argument is being made that the new counselor “opt out” doesn’t represent a significant change in policy or philosophy among CA members, it’s always been assumed that when a student asked for a recommendation, one would be provided either by a guidance counselor or a designated school official.
And in fact, the CA requires its members to conduct “holistic” reviews of applicants, defined as including “one academic recommendation form” as well as at least one untimed writing sample and “broader campus diversity considerations.”
Yet many more selective CA member colleges require both the submission of a completed “School Report,” containing a written evaluation provided by the counseling office (or other designated official) as well as one or more academic recommendations from teachers.  And they’re quietly worried guidance evaluations will stop routinely coming in with the addition of a check-off.
The problem seems to be that as the Common App seeks to grow by adding large state universities, such as Ohio State this year and Purdue (next year), adjustments are being made to application language appearing to accommodate schools where recommendations have traditionally not been required.  These are the schools most likely to bring in large numbers of applications and increased revenue for the Common App.
“…this change is being implemented to address the needs of our evolving membership and the counselors who serve their applicants,” explained Scott Anderson, director of outreach for the Common Application.  “It was unanimously endorsed by our Board [and] our two advisory committees.”
So what does this mean for applicants using the Common App for schools requiring both guidance and teacher recommendations?
First of all, it will be important to understand school- or district-based rules governing when and if school officials may elect not to submit written evaluations to CA member institutions on behalf of students.  Schools without such policies need to put them in place and communicate them publicly. 
In addition, it’s only fair that students be advised when their guidance counselor has opted out of providing an evaluation as part of the School Report.  Provisions should be made for students to have the option of obtaining an alternative recommendation when the counseling office refuses—for whatever reason.  An additional teacher recommendation or a character reference from a coach, mentor, volunteer organization, or minister should represent acceptable alternatives.
Unfortunately, the Common App has no mechanism in place to alert a student when the evaluation has not been provided.  They haven’t done it in the past and don’t plan to do it in the future.
It appears left up to colleges or the counselor to let the applicant know that important information is missing from the School Report.  Hopefully that will happen, but for colleges receiving somewhere north of 30,000 applications, it seems unlikely that admissions offices will take on that responsibility and the opportunity to enhance an application will be lost.
The Common App promises to provide clarification on the new counselor “opt out” sometime later in the summer.  Watch for the fine print and consider who is being served by these policy adjustments.

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