The return of students to your school building in the fall always brings excitement and optimism, but for school counselors these feelings are also accompanied by the daunting task of composing counselor letters of recommendation (CLORs) for college-bound seniors. Whether one considers the high student-to-counselor ratios many counselors must wrestle with or the fact that there is often uncertainty over how CLORs will be used and who actually reads them, it is clear that some advice might be helpful.

What follows are some suggestions which were formulated with a mind towards supporting those students entering the most accomplished applicant pools, but they apply equally and effectively to those students seeking competitive scholarships to their “on target” colleges, or for students aspiring to any college that is a ‘personal reach’ in light of their particular academic profile.

Know your audience and its challenges

  • For colleges beyond your immediate region, assume your reader has little firsthand experience with your specific community. Do you find that your area experiences considerable turnover in admission representation and is often assigned to a less tenured admission officer at out-of-region colleges?  It is wise to write from the premise that the primary reader for your students is relatively new to the admissions field and grew up in a different part of the country. While every admission reader wants to see students in their assigned regions fare well in the selection process, they might enjoy less clout within their office if they just started their career.
  • Admission competitiveness for colleges at all points of selectivity almost always trends in one direction: it gets tougher to get in each year. Therefore, students are increasingly in need of strong supporting materials (like the CLOR) not only for the most selective colleges, but possibly at colleges where a candidacy like theirs may have until recently required little discussion. Even where admission seems assured, the CLOR can take on considerable importance in the awarding of the top merit scholarships.

Do what you can, and avoid unforced errors

  • Go to bat for your best students! Use powerful, enthusiastic language and superlative statements when they are warranted.
  • Certain words have become cliché and/or do little to truly distinguish your student within an applicant pool filled with highly accomplished students. Examples include hard-working, reliable, driven, nice, polite, passionate and unique.
  • Do not assume an admissions reader will implicitly grasp the demands of particular extracurricular activities within your region (e.g. Minnesota high school hockey, or marching bands in Texas) or the student’s mix of family and personal commitments. When there is a story to tell along these lines, provide those important details.
  • Make sure your school has a Profile for Colleges that clearly explains the academic policies of your school (e.g., grading policies, admission to honors courses), the available curriculum and special programs.
  • Do not list former students who have been admitted, because it is possible that the reader did not evaluate those other students
  • Avoid physical descriptions of the student
  • Avoid generalizations or a string of adjectives unless you can also provide telling examples

Spend your (limited) time on what is most important and helpful

  • Rather than summarizing information appearing elsewhere in the application (especially when constrained by your caseload), paint the big picture. Counselors can accomplish, in only a few sentences, what your students cannot do for themselves: conceptualizing their experiences and accomplishments into something that a fellow educator can appreciate and digest.
  • Reinforce key points about the academic policy context of your school and the student’s more telling academic decisions. Talk up your school and its curriculum; if there are ‘notorious’ courses even strong students sometimes avoid or special academic experiences available to your students, talk about these in your letter.
  • The CLOR is important, but is not the only form of supporting materials a student receives. Have knowledge of the writing style of those teachers who students most often approach for academic references. Ideally, commentary on academic rigor and intellectual qualities can be left to teachers who have observed these directly, but sometimes it does fall to the CLOR to go the extra mile to paint that picture.
  • Illustrate the strong intangibles that could distinguish your student, those interesting intellectual or personal attributes that warrant the college’s attention. Be specific! For example, “Suzie’s transcript may not indicate a top of class student, but she spent last summer reading the complete works of Victor Hugo, and I have never met a student with better gifts for intellectual and adult conversation.”

When exceptional students ‘aim high’

In the specific instance of supporting those students aspiring to the most highly selective colleges, there are additional unknowns and possible pitfalls. These were well captured in a commentary last year written by Jon Boeckenstedt, DePaul University’s chief enrollment officer, as he reminisced about serving on the admissions committee at a highly selective college. As he noted about Midwestern applicants in particular, ‘Midwestern humility’ on the part of applicants and recommenders does not necessarily serve a student well in the crucible of a competitive admission or scholarship review.

  • For the most selective colleges, envision a scenario in which the first reader must route at least seven of every 10 files directly to deny. This means seven out of every 10 students with the accomplishments that would lead them to apply to a very selective college — academic standing near the top of the class, test scores in the 90th percentile or higher, rigorous academic programs and impressive personal accomplishments — are removed from the pool after just one read. In light of this, it is incumbent upon counselors to be assertive and unequivocal in support of truly exceptional students.
  • Be mindful of whether or not your community enjoys as many of the “hooks” that can sometimes influence admission outcomes within school groups in the college’s primary markets. From a college’s point of view, they must think more carefully about applicants from schools where recruited athletes will be admitted, communities that an admissions officer visits annually or where many of the college’s alumni live, or where there is an established pattern of receiving a significant number of applicants. Most of these scenarios do not apply to secondary or tertiary regions, making it even more important for counselors to make the most of the opportunity offered by the CLOR to help build the case for admission.

About the author: Brian Estrada spent nine years working as an undergraduate admission officer for Vanderbilt University and Dartmouth College. In 2013, he transitioned to a college counseling position at Providence Academy in Plymouth, Minn. This article was crafted from a session titled “Straight Talk about Counselor Recommendations,” presented at May 2016’s MIDWest joint ACAC conference in Minneapolis and November 2016’s Minnesota ACAC College Counseling Institute. Special thanks to Jessica Forniash (Randolph School-Huntsville, Ala., formerly Vanderbilt University), Kelly Woodward (Creighton University), and Nora Main (Macalester College), who contributed to those sessions and whose insights were incorporated into this article.

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