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.


3 Responses

  1. At our institution, we like the guidance counselor recommendation. It always seems as if the better the title of the individual (state representative, Director of Economic Development, Mayor) the less information about the student is presented. And usually its the students with the lower GPA’s that tend to try and find the impressive titles to write letters. Many get offended when we decline their applications. Spend the time on your grades and you will not need to find a superior title to write you a recommendation

  2. This implies that the role of the counselor in the high school itself is quite vital. If the counselor has about 200 students with many other tasks, he/she will not be able to find time to get to know each student very well, leading to weak recommendations (“on-the-surface” letters). General stuff in a recommendation usually won’t hurt an application, but the applicant who is on the edge of admission will probably not get pushed up there. On the contrary, other schools have much more dedicated staff to deal with college (usually private high schools), and these people can find the time to know each applying senior personally and therefore write a great letter.

    However, if you have a school like the first one I described (like mine), do not panic: the school recommendation is of relatively little weight when compared to the rest of the forms. If you can’t get a strong one, it will be an essentially neutral thing for you to submit; look for better ways to show yourself in the essay or teacher references.

    • Exactly right. Sadly high schools are heaping increasing work loads on guidance counselors – many with 500 or more students, and as a result many have little time for college guidance efforts, let along the chance to get to know their students well enough for detailed essays – and those that do, usually on their own time, get little thanks from the educaitonal system. One of my columns last year was “hug your guidance counselor” – regardless of your stance on recommendations that still seems like sound advice.

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