Preparing for College

Do Generic Guidance Counselor References Hurt Applicants?

Question: My son attends a large public high school. Students are asked to submit a "senior profile" detailing their grades, extracurriculars, academics, etc., and parents are asked to write a "sample letter of recommendation for your student." Needless to say, the counselor does not know any individual student very well, and in our case the limited contact my student has had with his counselor has not been particularly warm. How much weight do private college admissions offices place on the counselor recommendation, and are they aware of these practices?

A good counselor reference can definitely help a borderline student gain admission to his or her target colleges, but a bad one won't hurt. Admission officials are accustomed to receiving brief and generic references from school counselors, especially (although not exclusively) from huge public schools where the guidance staff members shoulder unwieldy loads. So, when a reference rolls into admission offices that says little more than, "This student has been a responsible member of our community and will succeed at the college of his choice," admission officials won't hold it against him. Likewise, they are used to seeing references that are little more than a regurgitation of resume fodder that they've already found elsewhere in the application: "Ralph has been on the swim team for three years, plays in our school band, and is a member of our Spanish Club." Again, no harm no foul.

But, on the other hand, a home-run recommendation can certainly help admission folks to really know the candidate in a way that the rest of the application will not. So the fact that your school has allowed you to chime in before the counselor letters are finalized can be a big plus. This is your chance to show off your child's strengths in areas that may not be apparent elsewhere in the application. But, in doing so, don't just submit a string of complimentary adjectives ("Hard-working" "trustworthy," "entertaining"). Instead, back these claims with anecdotes--recent, if possible--that prove your points.

Here's an exercise that you and other family members can try: Each of you should make a list of 10 positive traits that characterize your child. Then compare lists and see which of the entries on your list will probably not show up elsewhere on the application. For instance, if "smart" and "athletic" are on the list, these traits will most likely come across on the transcript or the activities roster. But how about "imaginative" or "loyal" or "compassionate"? Will these be as easy to spot? If not, then the letter of recommendation can be a great way to highlight such strengths. Again, don't forget to choose examples to support your suggestions.

So do take advantage of this chance to shape the letter, but don't fret if your son receives only a boilerplate endorsement nonetheless. Colleges do know that it's Standard Operating Procedure at many high schools schools. It's unfortunate that admission committees won't learn more from your son's counselor, but they won't hold it against your son either.