The Role of the Guidance Counselor Recommendation

I know I promised to get back to the GREAT MYTHS OF COLLEGE ADMISSIONS, but you all send such INTERESTING questions that I get distracted. This can also happen with shiny objects, or really interesting events, such as….

Shameless Plug: Just two weeks ago Mason hosted the first annual Washington Journalism and Media Conference. Enrolled students got to hear from Chuck Todd, NBC Chief White House Correspondent; Brian Lamb, CEO and Founder of CSPAN; and Helen Thomas, one of the nation’s best known journalists. They were also invited to participate in a private press conference led by Deputy White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest. The students were as amazing as the program. Check out details at If you are a rising senior, a strong student, and have terrific experience in and passion for journalism and media, you can apply to join us next year!

Enough of that, back to the advice.

Pretty much every college and university with a competitive admission process wants some kind of official input from the high school, and this usually takes the form of a counselor recommendation. Unlike other recommendations, the high school, not the student, decides who completes these recommendations. These letters take an ENORMOUS amount of counselors’ time, leading them to wonder what role those documents play in admissions decisions.

The easy answer is that it depends on the university, the year, and the admissions officer(s) reading the application. The more complex answer, unfortunately, tends to make me sound at best like I’m contradicting myself, at worst like I’ve developed a subtle split personality.

As I repeat often in these columns, in reality the vast majority of the weight in the admissions process is on your academic record. So I rant on and on (and on and on) about how applicants assign far too much weight to scores, essays, extra-curriculars, and recommendations.

Now I turn around and say that recommendations play a vital and active role in most admissions processes, and that this is particularly true of guidance counselor recommendations. What’s up with that? The confusing reality is that both views are accurate. Your academic records do, more than any other factors, dominate admissions decisions. Nevertheless, the other factors do have a role, and admissions officers read recommendations (and essays) to find information that may influence their decision. That isn’t to say that even the best recommendation will get an academically unqualified student admitted, or that a weak recommendation will cause a committee to deny a truly outstanding candidate. Applicants in between the cream of the crop and utterly unqualified will find that recommendations have more influence (although still less than academic record). Got it?

Now that I’ve confused the issue of how important these recommendations are, I might was well also muddy the water on recommendation content. Recommendations often attempt cover nearly everything you’ve done during high school. I’ve previously advised you to avoid recommendations that are lengthy and generally uninformative in favor of ones that focus on what the recommender knows best. That’s a good general rule since admissions officers have limited time to spend on each application, and you want them to get to the information that best supports a positive decision.

Counselor recommendations, however, can be the exception to that rule. Many institutions will use a counselor’s recommendation to compare claims you made on your application, and often counselors will list some interesting accomplishments you forgot to include. More importantly, it is the personal knowledge about the student that is most likely, in my experience, to have an impact on the decision, particularly where the counselor is aware of any unusual circumstances/hurdles that might otherwise be overlooked (or even doubted) in the application review process.

I’m not surprised that many counselors, parents, and students find this quite confusing, and of course these answers will vary to some degree depending on the individual evaluator, school, etc. In general, you exert control over your recommendations by selecting who will write them. The author of the guidance counselor recommendation, however, is rarely your decision. For those of you entering your senior year, you may want to consider devoting some energy to getting to know your guidance counselor. For those of you whose dispositions may leave something to desire and/or whose interactions with your guidance counselor to date may have been less than satisfactory, you may want to ponder how you can enhance your standing in this regard. I recommend chocolate. Be seeing you.

Impact of Transferring High Schools

A slight detour from my pontification about admissions myths (with apologies to my editor who is trying mightily to keep me on track).

After many years in admissions, reading thousands of applications, and answering tens of thousands of questions, I’m still always finding new issues. The latest was raised by a student at an amazing event here at Mason this summer, the Washington Journalism and Media Conference. The student is transferring high schools in her senior year, wonders how colleges will interpret her records, and whether she needs to do anything different in her application process.

This issue actually comes up all the time, generally caused by students moving or finding that a particular high school wasn’t a good fit. The difference is that now a number of students are changing schools in their senior year largely due to the economic downturn – some moving districts for parents’ work or more reasonably price housing, others switching from private to public schools (or just to less expensive private schools).

Fortunately, this is an easy issue to address. Colleges and universities are VERY experienced in reading transcripts that include multiple high schools, and your new school will work with you to make sure your records are appropriately transferred so they can all be included. As a result, transferring schools doesn’t place you at any particular disadvantage or advantage from the college standpoint. High schools that provide rank in class have various ways of calculating the rank for transfers – some advantage them, some disadvantage them, while many just leave transfers out of the rank calculation, especially if coming to the school as late as senior year. In any event, we’re used to seeing all of that as well, so I wouldn’t worry about it the minimal, if any, impact.

Some students will choose to make the transfer a topic of their essay. I find that works best when the student is making the change for academic reasons – finding a high school that, for whatever reason, allows the student to perform better, but I caution that this essay only works if supported by an upswing in academic performance. If the reason you are transferring is social or monetary, it may merit some explanation, but I would make that an addition to your record, rather than the focus of your essay. You should also know that your financial status is NONE OF OUR BUSINESS, and it’s entirely up to you how much you share. You may want to and/or be required to submit your financial records to the financial aid office (and at some sneakier schools the admissions offices have full access to those records), but in general admissions officers don’t need any of them.

So, sleep well with the comforting thought that transferring high schools is very unlikely to have impact on your admission process…now you can focus on the more important issue of getting a date by homecoming. Next time I promise to try to get back to the myths of college admissions – if nothing else that should make my editor happy. Be seeing you.

The Great Myths of College Admissions

One of the reasons I started writing about admissions (the other, of course, is the chance to brag about Mason) is that so much of the information about how students get selected is confusing, and the majority of it is just plain wrong. This has led me to identify “The Three Great Myths of College Admissions”:
1) Admissions is fair
2) Admissions is complicated
3) Admissions is easy to predict

I’ll take each of these on in future musings, but the fairness issue has been getting so much coverage in the media that it has been looming large in my mind. For those of you not paying attention, or too preoccupied with the Michael Jackson funeral, the University of Illinois has been dragged through the mud. This appears to have started with the investigation of the former governor of Illinois, which seems to have led investigators to find that members of his administration had influenced admission to the University of Illinois.

Pardon me for failing to be shocked. No doubt, the blatant nature of the case is largely to blame for the uproar. The heavy handed intervention for a law school candidate, documented through email even after the Dean of the law school argued that the candidate was unqualified, demonstrated, if nothing else, a surprising lack of awareness of the public relation implications. That being said, advocacy for constituents seeking admission by politicians who control our budgets is nothing new. It’s just one small example of the overall unfairness of the admissions process, which reflects society, which, let’s be honest, pretty much reflects life.

Speaking of the general unfairness of life, I’ve been reading Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Outliers, which helps to illustrate how life is often unfair even without the Governor of Illinois intervening. Gladwell, in examining incredibly successful people, suggests that luck and connections, basically opportunity, have A LOT more to do with success than anything else. For instance, he highlights that most professional hockey players in Canada were born in the first quarter of the year; he claims that being born in those months gave them a significant edge in early play, leading to opportunities that those poor souls born in November couldn’t get. He looks at Bill Gates (among other tech giants) and the exceptional access to computers he and his few peers were able to get at an early age. He also looks at the richest people in history, noting that the American members of that list all group in the same decade, being born at a time that offered an unusual, and so far distinctive, opportunity to garner massive wealth. That’s all in the first half of the book (which is how far I’ve gotten in the audio tape I listen to in the car on my very short commute).

I have one word for Mr. Gladwell – duh.

He admits that each of the individuals – professional hockey players, tech moguls, and capitalist icons – all had to be brilliant, talented, and incredibly hardworking; however, they also received unusual opportunities that other people didn’t. And there, my good friends, is a great description of the inherent unfairness of the college admissions process as well.

Many students get access to better schools and/or grow up in environments where getting a college degree is assumed from birth. Some students know enough to request influence from university supporters, and what university won’t at least listen to a major supporter, be they donor or holding the government purse strings? Test preparation programs, some argue, clearly tilt the balance to those who can afford them. Tutoring and help with essays are also within reach of the affluent, along with hundreds of other boosts you can get if you can afford them. Gladwell might even include your birth date as a factor for academic success, since the time of year you were born (the first three months are best) is likely to have a large impact on whether you have a chance to be tracked into gifted and talented programs (since you are one of the oldest members of your class and more often ahead of others in your grade).

So yes, life is unfair. Also, this just in, two plus two still equals four. Sarcasm aside, there are right and wrong ways that this fairness gets applied, and right and wrong ways to try to level that playing field, both on the admissions side and as an applicant. More on that when I have time, after I return a call from…well, never mind who. Be seeing you.

Shameless Plug: Mason faculty make a difference

Mason professors are shaping the future in more ways than one. Not only are they preparing current students to leave the walls of the classroom and succeed, they are involved in an array of varying research efforts. From helping those regain the motor skills to write to implementing new technology to find buried land minds, see for yourself what Mason’s faculty are up to.

How is YOUR summer vacation?

Summer is a bizarre time for admissions offices. While many members of the campus community are away and others are conducting or taking condensed summer courses, admissions offices are often at their busiest. Those that work with or run orientation have those programs throughout the season, and transfer and non degree applications at many schools remain busy up until the time classes start for the fall semester – but all of those efforts deal with students entering institutions in the upcoming fall.

The majority of our attention at this point is focused on future students. Most of us are deep in the midst of recruiting the Fall 2010 entering class, many are already communicating with prospective Fall 2011 students, and a few are even reaching out to those expected to enroll in 2012 or later. This leads to a slew of planning activities – designing and re-designing publications (paper and electronic), mailings (again, paper and electronic), deciding event dates and travel schedules for fall high school visits and college fairs, and of course buying names. In case you missed it, your name is for sale. For those of you who took the SAT or ACT (or early variations) and checked the little box (which said something like, “Check here to get really amazing information on scholarships and colleges,” but which should say, “Check here to flood your email with messages from colleges and universities.”), we can buy your name from the College Board or ACT. Some of you may have filled out one of the many surveys in schools or online, or signed up for something, or maybe your parents filled out a form about sixteen years ago when they were buying you diapers – in any of those cases, we can buy your name. I’m NOT suggesting that this is a bad thing. To the contrary, I think one of the best ways to find out about all the many many (many many) options available to you is to have your name in all those prospective student databases so you are more likely to hear from a wider variety of schools. All those names, however, create a lot of work for those of us trying to get your attention.

This creates a wonderful cottage industry in getting your attention. Realizing that colleges are unlikely to be able to afford advertising on “The Hills,” or probably even product placement on the show (although that would be SO worth it if I could get one of the cast members to go through the Mason recruitment and admissions process!), a number of companies try to offer vehicles that they claim will get your attention. I can advertise in dozens of magazines, newsletters, and websites where presumably you will go for college admissions information (by way of disclosure, Fastweb is one of those options – and the best one, since they clearly have the best information, but I may be a wee bit biased). As a result, I wade through hours of presentations trying to decide whether Facebook advertising is worth the money or whether placement at the top of a guide to using your school’s student information system would be a better use of our very few dollars.

Of course, there’s a ton of routine business to conduct as well, and many admissions offices have special projects in the summer (like our AMAZING Washington Journalism and Media Conference!). So while you’re lounging by the pool, my colleagues from across the country are very busy trying to figure out how to convince you to pick their school – isn’t it nice to know you’re on their mind? No? Kinda creepy? Yeah, that’s what I thought. Be seeing you.