recommendation letters

by Kara Courtois, former admissions officer at Barnard College

It’s common, especially at larger high schools, that school counselors cannot personally know each and every student to whom they are assigned. Given the unreasonable number of students most counselors have in their caseload, this unfortunate situation is not surprising, but this reality has only gotten more challenging because of virtual schooling. Maybe this doesn’t worry you too much as a parent until you realize this same counselor may be required to write a letter of recommendation for your student’s college applications. But don’t panic; it’s not as dire a situation as you might think! Our college admissions experts help students get over this hurdle every year.

Though it’s true a personal connection between school counselor and student might be helpful in multiple respects, the purpose of the recommendation letter is not necessarily meant to be personal. What information do school reports (as counselor recommendations are often called) usually provide, then? Colleges are most curious about:

  • How rigorous a 9-12 course load, within the context of the school’s offerings, the applicant took in relation to their classmates
  • Confirmation of any extended absences or difficult life experiences the student gives the counselor permission to reveal or confirm, including ways that COVID may have affected them or their family
  • A broad overview of the student’s activities and most prominent character traits
  • Any other information that may offer context for the student’s choices regarding academics and extra-curriculars

So, unlike teacher recommendation, the counselor recommendation is not expected to show in detail how a student conducts themself in the classroom or how they may approach particular academic subjects. But, information about your child’s contributions to the school overall and how your child might be prepared for the college experience certainly couldn’t hurt. Review the Common App’s own description of what they expect from the letter of recommendation.

How can you ensure the counselor has at least some idea of who your student is and what they care about? Here are a few quick tips for how their counselor might get to quickly know your student:

  1. Have your student create a list of the clubs, volunteer work, sports, jobs, etc., they have participated in since 9thgrade, and give a copy to the counselor. Additionally, the counselor may provide what is sometimes called a “brag sheet” that will require the student to list these activities and offers insights into their goals and preferences for college.
  1. Set up an in-person meeting with the counselor and your student at the end of junior year to discuss a college list and the counseling office’s policies around college applications. If your schedule doesn’t allow for this, encourage your student to set up and attend the meeting independently.
  1. Encourage your student to continue to meet or communicate with the counselor on a regular basis throughout the remainder of junior and senior year.

Performing any of the above suggestions will help your counselor along, but being on time with paperwork in the senior year, including letter and transcript requests, is the best way to get on a counselor’s good side. Make sure your student is prepared and check out our college admissions timetable. The early bird gets the worm!

College Application Prep 101

Written by Kara Courtois
Kara Courtois is a member of College Coach’s team of college admissions consultants. Kara holds degrees from University of Notre Dame and University of Portland; she completed her graduate coursework at Teachers College, Columbia University and Steinhardt School of Education. Prior to joining College Coach, Kara was a senior admissions officer at Barnard College. Visit our website to learn more about Kara Courtois.