The school counselor recommendation is one of the most important and overlooked portions of the college admissions process. Virtually every classmate that I have spoken to at Stanford had a good relationship with his/her counselor and some maintain friendships. This year, the Common Application has added two options for school counselors to decline sending an evaluation for students:
• "I do not have sufficient personal knowledge of this student."
• "The demands of my counseling load do not afford me sufficient time."
With these new options, it is critical that you give school counselors a reason to write you evaluations by developing a personal connection and showing sincere effort in your academics and extracurricular activities.
Your counselor helps admissions officers see you from a different academic perspective, outside of an individual classroom. At many private and preparatory schools, counselors often directly talk to admissions officers. More importantly, school counselors can be a source of guidance and experience throughout high school if you are able to make your relationship with him/her personal.
But how do you get to know my counselor when there are hundreds of students in my class?
The first step is to proactively engage your counselor -- use email, schedule a meeting, or even set up a phone call. Do anything to set up the initial conversation as early as you can. If you are a high school senior writing college applications now, schedule this meeting in the first few weeks of school. Often schools will have a system where you briefly meet your counselor and have a surface-level talk so that they are able to somewhat personalize your application. Although this is a start, you should be making an effort to develop a working relationship.
Counselors may also reach out to teachers to learn about your participation in-class, work ethic, and personality. Because of this cross-referencing it is important to have good relationships with your teachers as well.
What do I talk about?
During your first conversations, the most important aspect is that your counselor starts to recognize you and your personality. After that, start to tell them about your interests, your extracurricular activities, and even your worries. Brainstorm your preliminary college list. Don't waste a counselor's time by scheduling unnecessary meetings, but also don't put off regular contact. I know this is a hard balance, but one that you have to judge on a case-by-case basis. Realize that counselors become very busy during college application season (August-December) so try to develop a relationship earlier if possible. The longer the relationship, the better.
You don't need to put on a show for your counselor -- be honest and genuine, that's how a personal connection starts to develop. Talk about how you did on your SAT. Mention your recent AP Chemistry test. If you start this conversation early, your counselor can see your evolution over time: your emotional, personal, and academic maturation. Then your counselor is able to bring these aspects together in an evaluation that makes you become an unfolding, complex, and interesting story instead of some words on a page.
My counselor, Mr. McLelland at Oak Park High School, was one of the most influential mentors throughout my high school years because I knew I could tell him anything. This bond showed shined through during the stressful but productive college application season. I am sure it showed clearly in the letter he sent to the colleges I applied to.
What else should I do?
If you have a working relationship with your school counselor, you are ahead of the curve. You should now start to brainstorm with your counselor on issues they can help you with: school-specific knowledge like the rigor of AP/IB courses. Put effort into making these meetings meaningful and prepare ahead of time -- counselors are always busy and will appreciate your effort. If you are able to put in visible effort, counselors will more likely be willing to put effort into your letter.
Make your intentions clear as well. Be straightforward about what types of schools you are aiming for and your goals after graduation. If you are clear, your counselor can help you appropriately and know your point of view.
It's all over. Right?
No. Once you submit your applications you should immediately send your teachers and counselors hand-written thank you notes. The lack of appreciation is probably the biggest shame in the admissions process -- teachers and counselors need to be acknowledged! You can even be brief as long as you are specific. Counselors have hundreds of students and are doing you a favor -- the new Common Application even allows them mark a box instead of writing an evaluation.
Counselor and teacher recommendations give admissions officers more color on who you are inside and outside of the classroom. Stay true to yourself and your story and these letters will verify the rest of your application.
The most important part of this process is finding your identity through what you do and how you think, and that is why I support the rationale behind the dreaded application essays, interviews, and process as a whole. Start early and try new activities, and eventually find a thesis for your story: your theme. Let your counselor experience this evolution over time as you grow, but don't be overbearing.
Good luck, work hard, have fun, and most importantly, be yourself.