My Guidance Counselor Doesn't Even Know My Name!

Question: I am a senior at a big public high school and just met with my guidance counselor. He kept calling me “Dan" even though my name is “Ben." (I corrected him twice and then gave up.) He was new last year and obviously doesn't know me at all. But he will be writing my college recommendation. So am I screwed?

In a perfect world, every guidance counselor would be able to compose glowing, anecdotal recommendations that highlight each student's strengths. But, in the real world, this is rarely true. It's more common for students to have guidance counselors who don't know them well than it is to have those who do ... and some seniors have no counselor at all! When I worked at Smith College, it wasn't unusual to see counselor recommendations that said little more than, “Caitlin is a responsible, capable young woman who has pursued a rigorous curriculum, taken part in our volleyball and debate teams, and will succeed at the college of her choice."

Admission officials look hardest at course selection and grades, often at test scores (where required), then at extracurricular activities and various additional endeavors that might set the candidate apart from the crowd, and at essays, etc. But when they read through references—whether from teachers, counselors, or others —they're usually scanning for exceptional compliments or for tacit warnings. And most references provide neither.

Your counselor may ask you and/or your parents for a “brag sheet"—typically a series of questions for you to answer about your interests and achievements. And if your counselor doesn't make such a request, it's fine to provide him with one anyway. You can read more about brag sheets ... along with other tips for working with your counselor ... in the “Ask the Dean" column you'll find here: Although that column is geared to private school counselors, there is information in it that should help you as well.

Because you're concerned that your counselor doesn't know you, you can send an unsolicited extra recommendation to your target colleges that comes from someone who does ... an employer, club advisor, coach, youth group leader, etc. Occasionally application instructions will prohibit such extras, but that's rare.

But don't worry if your counselor recommendation doesn't make you sound like a cross between Mahatma Gandhi and Madame Curie. While a strong, personal counselor letter can be a plus, a brief, unmemorable one isn't a negative ... if that makes any sense at all. Well, think of it this way: Let's say you're a track star. That's likely to help you to get into your top-choice college. Yet the vast majority of students at that college will NOT be track stars and yet they got in anyway. Likewise, while an extraordinary counselor reference might push your application closer to the"In" pile, admission committees won't hold a generic reference against you. And if the counselor continues to call you “Dan"—including in his recommendation—it might even work a tiny bit in your favor because the admission folks will be all the more likely to take that prosaic reference with a giant block of salt and will look elsewhere in your application for the many reasons to accept you.