Recommendation letters aren’t fill in the blank

Caroline Fogarty

Staring at the empty spaces on my college app, I struggle thinking about how I am going to condense the last four years of my life into a generic online form.  The essay prompts let me highlight my important activities, but for the most part, the tiny word counts and ambiguous lists do little to explore unique personalities and passions.

Colleges attempt to learn more about students by requesting that they get recommendation letters from their teachers and counselors.  While teacher recommendations make sense because students can ask for letters from teachers with whom they made a close bond or in whose class they performed well, the usefulness of counselor recommendations is questionable at a big school like Redwood.

Every student is assigned a counselor before the beginning of their freshman year, and each counselor has 325 students assigned to them.

Unlike some Redwood students, my counselor knows me well.  He has been through my scheduling issues and class changes.  He has been enthusiastic about all of it, but he has also seen the very worst side of me in relation to school. I cannot remember a time when I walked into the counseling office to discuss one of my achievements or how well a class was going.  I put in a green slip when I have a problem, not when things are going well.

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In contrast, there are some students who never speak with their counselors.  Their counselors are a distant force that creates their schedules.  They may have talked to their counselors once or twice about college but their counselors might not even recognize them in the hallway.

In both cases, the fact that the counselor must write a recommendation letter is disconcerting. For some, there is a feeling that their counselor may not have seen them at their best moments.  For others, there is a feeling that their counselors do not even know them.

Counselors do care and want their students to get into their top choice schools, but they realize that they themselves may not be the best qualified to write a letter praising the student.  For this reason, Redwood counselors mainly rely on a questionnaire required from the student and a letter from the student’s parent to draft their recommendation.  This method allows them to include personal details about the student that, in most cases, they have not observed firsthand.

This may provide an excellent addition to the students’ application package.  However, in most instances, this is just another list of activities already included in the application forms, essays, and teacher recommendations. Also, the process of filling out the counselor questionnaire is a very time-consuming undertaking for students who are busy working on their college essays, taking their last round of SATs, and juggling a tough senior course load of AP classes.

Requiring a counselor letter of recommendation for every student hurts students from big schools like Redwood.  Students at small schools where each counselor knows their students well from many one-on-one meetings have an advantage.  Students at private schools are getting their recommendations from college counselors who are employed to help get the students into college.  Unlike Redwood counselors, these college counselors do not deal with schedules, classes, or problems, but rather only the college application process and writing recommendation letters. These college counselors have a more direct incentive to make sure the students get into their top colleges because that is what they are hired for.

If the college application process is working towards equal opportunity for all students, then letters of recommendation from counselors should be waved good-bye.  The University of Washington says it best on their application: “Your teachers and counselors can’t say it any better than you can. You know your life story, your hopes and dreams, your most significant activities. No letters: just you.”