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10/27/2014 04:15 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Truth About Counselor Recommendation Letters

It’s that time of year again when you polish up your college essay, approach teachers for recommendations and get started on that dreaded Common App. Applying to college is a long and complicated (but most definitely rewarding!) experience. Applications often require a number of different elements, which can throw you in different directions when you’re getting ready to apply.

One key element of the college application is the recommendation letter – namely, the counselor recommendation letter. Some colleges require them, some recommend them and others don’t even mention them. Generally, opinions on the counselor recommendation letter vary; luckily, HC is here to explain this curious part of your college application!

What is a counselor recommendation letter?

A counselor recommendation letter is exactly what it sounds like – a letter written by your guidance or college counselor that recommends you as a student. In essence, it’s a letter sent to colleges that brags about what a great student you are and why a particular college should accept you.

A recommendation letter should highlight your special skills and personal involvement. It should convey how you go above and beyond and set yourself apart from other students. All this information should be backed up by scholarly statistics, like your GPA and standardized test scores – so stay on top of it!

A recommendation letter could be the factor that sets you apart from another competing student. Each year, colleges and universities receive thousands of applications from somewhat similar students with almost identical application elements. After comparing transcripts, test scores and GPAs, there are only a few more elements that can set you apart, and a recommendation letter is one of them.

Recommendation letters are creative and personal, unlike the numerical value of your SAT score. They can convey your strengths to an admissions counselor in a way that an essay or transcript can’t.

While you may have heard of the concept of teacher rec letters – or even recommendations for jobs – counselor recommendation letters are a little different. Counselors have a special insight of where you stand among other students because they’ve gotten to know many of them. While teacher recommendation letters can be a bit more personalized and positioned in a certain way, counselors can give some educated insight on how you behave as a student in a specific environment among other students.

Why use one?

It’s easy enough to tell a college why you’re awesome, but let’s be honest: You’re a little biased. Recommendation letters offer colleges a new perspective on you as a candidate. Letters of recommendation can validate what you’ve already said on your application and highlight skills that you might not have had the chance to express.

In addition to giving some background on you as a student, a recommendation letter can also give an admissions counselor some information about where you come from. “Many college and university admission officers use the counselor recommendation to learn more about the school and the community of the student applying for admission,” says Shawn Abbott, assistant vice president and dean of admissions at New York University. “It is helpful to learn about the academic profile of one's senior class, testing averages, and the socioeconomic background of the students attending and the town or city in which the school resides.”

Not all students come from the same environment with the same resources, so a counselor recommendation letter may give admissions counselors that insight and put your achievements in perspective based on your peers.

Moreover, letters of recommendations can let admissions counselors peek into your life. "They can be really helpful in explaining grades that are anomalies or family situations that may have adversely impacted a student,” says Jacqueline Murphy, director of admission of the undergraduate program at Saint Michael’s College.

While you might not be able to explain a familial situation or environmental factor on your transcript, your counselor has the opportunity to do so in his or her letter. In general, a recommendation letter is another medium that allows your counselor to express your strengths and advocate for you as a candidate.

How can these letters help or hurt your app?

Opinions vary when it comes to how relevant the counselor recommendation letter is. At large schools, it’s likely that students and counselors don’t get much one-on-one time.

Avianne Tan, a senior at New York University, was in this situation. Because Avianne didn’t have much contact with her counselor, she says, “During senior year we were required to give in ‘senior brag sheets’ that listed all our accomplishments and other notable resume-esque items just so that they could write letters of recommendation for us even without knowing us, really.”

While those who didn’t know their guidance counselors well probably view their recommendation letters as useless, other collegiettes think differently about the topic. Haleigh Kopinski, a senior at Point Park University, says that her guidance counselor wrote her a letter of recommendation when she was applying for scholarships, which helped immensely. “There were scholarships in my area I wasn't even eligible to receive due to location, GPA, things like that,” she says. “[My guidance counselor] made me apply for these scholarships I wasn't eligible for and would send recommendation letters to the boards on these scholarships for them to consider my application. I got all of the scholarships he sent letters into.”

And while it makes sense that students who don’t know their counselors might think that their letters don’t make much of a difference, admissions workers beg to differ. “At UT Austin, we use a holistic review process,” says Laura Lavergne, assistant to the director for special projects and communication at UT Austin’s Office of Admissions. “As a result, meaningful information that comes to us through any submitted items – including recommendations – [has] the potential to make a difference when we are reviewing applications.”

College applications are made up of multiple different elements, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not all important. Everything you submit to colleges can influence their decisions about your application!

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