Nov 4, 2013

7 Tips for Helping your Counselor Write a Better Recommendation

Of all the problems affecting the new Common Application, the difficulties encountered by school counselors and teachers in the submission of recommendations are currently among the most vexing.

“We’ve been dealing with a school report and teacher recs that wouldn’t submit for over a month,” commented one Michigan-based school counselor.

Most colleges will tell you that the counselor recommendation can be one of the most important elements of your application.  And they will also tell you that “generic” or “copy-and-paste” narratives don’t do much to further an applicant’s candidacy for admission.

But with huge caseloads and limited time to get to know students, counselors sometimes take shortcuts and resort to “stock” statements, which give little insight into a student’s character, qualifications, or potential for success.

“I’ve seen counselors attach the same recommendation—exact same recommendation—to more than one application with only the names changed,” laughed one admissions official.  “I suppose they think we won’t notice, but it’s not helpful.”

Unfortunately, with increased use of the Common App’s online school forms, the problem is worsening as counselors submitting electronically through the Common Application are prohibited from tailoring their recommendations for particular colleges.  With the Common App, it's strictly one-size-fits-all.*

And counselors have also been given the option of not providing any evaluation at all, which presents a whole new series of problems if your counselor hasn't had the chance to get to know you.

When all is said and done, you need to know that your counselor not only knows who you are but also has all the tools necessary to write a strong and effective evaluation.

And this is best accomplished by developing a personal connection with the person behind the desk. 

Here are 7 tips for helping your counselor write a better recommendation:
  1. Schedule an appointment.  There’s no substitute for a one-on-one conversation with someone asked to evaluate your “personal qualities and character.”  Although it’s better if this relationship has been developing over four years, don’t delay introducing yourself to the new counselor or strengthening the bond with the person you’ve known for some time.  Be aware that email and the internet aren’t the best means for promoting a personal connection, as it’s hard to communicate all the between-the-lines qualities that come through eye contact and a smile.  But don’t waste your counselor’s time.  Come prepared to discuss some element of the application process—college list, test strategy, senior year classes, or what you did last summer. And be sure to ask what you can do to make the process easier.

  2.  Prepare a resume.  This handy document has all kinds of important uses, and you should make sure that your counselor has an up-to-date copy in your file.  Beyond simply listing accomplishments and memberships, a good resume will provide details that make you stand out like specific job responsibilities, unusual skills or certifications, or unique hobbies and interests.  Keep in mind that format and the way you present yourself on a resume speak volumes about your attention to detail and maturity.

  3.  Share your essays.  The best “personal statement” tells a story that builds on but doesn’t duplicate what’s on your resume or application.  It’s your opportunity to introduce yourself, suggest what kind of student you will be, and provide evidence of “fit” with the colleges on your list.  Your counselor can benefit from these insights and may learn a little more about who you are or what motivates you by the topic you select and the way you approach it.

  4.  Provide recommendations.  Some schools have a process in place for automatically sending teacher recommendations to your guidance counselor.  If this isn’t the case, ask your teachers to send copies of their recommendations to the counseling office.  Teachers have frontline experience with academic achievement, class participation, and work ethic, all of which are key components of the school evaluation.  Also consider asking employers or mentors to send your guidance counselor copies of any recommendations they've prepared.  These evaluations often address personal commitment, responsibility, and character traits beyond what may be seen in the classroom.

  5. Sign a FERPA waiver.  The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) requires that students be advised of their rights concerning educational records such as letters of recommendation.  Although no high school or university can require you to waive these rights, your counselor will feel more comfortable writing a candid assessment if you go ahead and sign a FERPA waiver at the start of the application process.  And note that recommendations without signed waivers are likely to be given less weight by colleges in the application process.

  6. Write a press release.  Consider preparing a brief statement outlining any additional information you think colleges might benefit from knowing as they review your application.  Connect special accomplishments, projects, or activities to long term goals and ambitions.  Make the case for particular colleges, programs, or majors.  And address barriers faced during your high school career if they explain “blips” in academics.  Keep in mind that counselors are likely to use whatever you give them, so be thoughtful about what you write and how you approach sensitive topics.

  7. Allow enough time.  Counselors are busy people. Don't wait until the last minute to respond to requests for information supporting your application.  If your counselor wants you and/or your parents to complete a college questionnaire or “senior profile,” fill it out completely and return it as soon as possible—preferably long before deadline. You should neither want nor expect your counselor to "rush" your recommendation.  Instead, give your counselor lots of time to reflect on how organized and responsive you are. 
And whatever you do, let your school counselor know how very much you value their personal support and follow-up with a very personal thank you!

*Note that this isn't the case with the Universal College Application and that some "tailoring" of recommendations may be possible for those submitted through Naviance.

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