You’ve worked hard. You’ve received solid grades across all four years of high school in rigorous courses, studied intensively for your standardized exams, focused on creating an impact as a leader in your school and greater community, and wrote killer essays that reveal your true self in outstanding ways.
So you should be all set, right?
Not necessarily; these are just the parts of the application that you complete.
While an applicant and their families may not realize this, the recommendations letters your guidance counselor (and teachers) submit to advocate for you are incredibly important in the admission committee process. Regardless of how well your guidance counselor knows you, their letters provide an additional layer of authenticity to everything you’ve included in your application. Is there something you’re too humble to brag about? Your counselor can be the one to toot your horn for you. Is there a special circumstance you’ve experienced that might seem like an excuse coming from you? Again, that’s a chance for your guidance counselor to share your story on your behalf.
Some high school counseling offices will send out a “brag sheet” for the student and parents to complete. This is your chance to provide anecdotes about key characteristics your counselor can highlight in their letter. It’s a really good idea to spend ample time to thoughtfully complete these sheets. It’s possible that your counselor may even copy/paste specific phrases or responses that you or your parents have written, which saves them time, and simultaneously makes you look great (assuming that you’ve written positive things about yourself :))
If your school doesn’t have a brag sheet, consider sharing examples and stories about the following:
Your Personality and Character
Universities aren’t just looking for academically standout students. In fact, a student’s character and “fit” at the school matter more than ever. Your counselor may have already gathered notes on their impression of you from meetings you’ve had, but it wouldn’t hurt to provide examples of character-revealing stories from your life as well. Perhaps it’s through community service, participation in specific programs, or even experiences you’ve shared with friends. Whatever it may be, stories can go a long way, so dig deep and don’t be afraid to get personal.
Your Impact in Your School Community
Are you the big (wo)man on campus? Does everyone know you as the mover and shaker, the doer of all things, the leader who rouses the crowd OR leads from behind (just as important)? Colleges want to know that you’re not just coming to their school to silently study in your dorm room. They want to admit students who are going to leave their mark on campus, enrich their peers’ college experience, and create new initiatives and programs while improving existing ones. How have you demonstrated that in your high school? What imprint have you left? Even small examples are worth noting just in case.
What Sets You Apart from Every Other Applicant?
This can be your sense of humor, your family background, marked intellectual vitality, special personal experiences that have shaped you in significant ways, and/or simply your counselor’s impression of how you distinguish yourself from the rest of your class. What do you feel makes you special? What do your parents think makes you special? What about your friends? Siblings? Feel free to ask the people who know you well for their input as you gather the bullet points to share with your counselor.
Your Level of Preparation for This Next Stage of Life
Have you shown growth and maturity over your high school years? How have your actions proven this? Are there anecdotes your counselor can share that demonstrate that you’re ready for this next chapter and prepared to take advantage of all that a university has to offer? Consider sharing examples of selfless contributions, responsible decision-making, and/or thoughtful prioritizing.
Yes, universities know that there are some high school counselors with caseloads of 100 or more students. While they can’t (and don’t) expect detailed letters of recommendation from such counselors, there’s still a lot a student can do to maximize the chances of securing a quality, personalized letter. Sure, it’s one more thing to prepare, and you have so much to think about already. But considering how much weight these letters can carry, the time investment can very well be worth it.