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 http://www.dcpresspass.com. 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.