student at christmas

Some consider teacher and counselor recommendations to be the icing on the cake of a stellar college application, but they serve an integral role in the college application process.

Most understand that the strongest recommendations don’t succumb to platitudes like, “Johnny is a great, hardworking student,” or “Sarah always goes the extra mile in class,” but use anecdotes and examples to illustrate a student’s unique brand of excellence.

The best recommendations, however, also accomplish even more, like corroborating the writing ability in Johnny’s essays or explaining the extenuating circumstances that had an impact on Sarah’s grades.  Recommendations provide context to the many intangible aspects of a college application.

On the Common Application’s recommendation form, for example, teachers are required to rate each student according to 15 qualities that don’t necessarily factor into a student’s GPA (see below).  In my opinion,


it’s no coincidence that academic achievement, intellectual promise, quality of writing, creative thought, and productive class discussion feature at the top of the list.  After all, what college professor wouldn’t want a class full of students who excel in those five categories?

College counselors, on the other hand, fill out a form called the Secondary School Report in which, among other things, they rate the level of challenge of a student’s course selection.  Colleges take this evaluation very seriously: it helps them measure the quality of an applicant’s GPA.  All else being equal, a class schedule filled with honors and AP classes will always trump one without in the admissions process.

College counselors’ powers of advocacy extend beyond a single form.  Those who have been around a while and have developed relationships with admissions officers can call and advocate on a student’s behalf.  Let me clarify that it is counterproductive for a counselor to call when a student has an unrealistic shot at a particular college, but borderline applicants or excellent applicants who are applying to highly competitive colleges can certainly benefit when a counselor helps in this way.

So what can a student do about all of the important factors that seem outside of his or her control?  Quite a lot, actually, especially if college applications are another year or two down the road.

Here are a few ways for students to get started:

1.     Select recommenders who have seen you at your best.  Remember, even if a teacher likes you, he or she will have to rate your qualities as a student, comparing you to all of your classmates and even to students that have come before you.  So think critically about where you stand in your teacher’s eyes.

2.    Select recommenders who teach subjects you may pursue in college.  If you have selected an area of academic interest, ask your teacher about ways to pursue it outside of class.  Find out if  you can do an extra project.  Maybe you could take a related class at a local college over the summer. If you’re feeling especially ambitious, try to start a new club at school to share your passion with your peers.  And don’t forget to inform your teacher of these extracurricular accomplishments!

3.     Write a letter to your recommender.  Before your recommender writes your recommendation, write a letter that details all of your impressive experiences in class, what inspires you intellectually, and how your teacher has prepared you for college.  And don’t forget to follow up with a thank-you letter afterward!

4.     Be proactive.  Your college counselor is more likely to be on your team if you don’t make his or her job any more overwhelming than it already is.  Meet all of the deadlines your counselor sets, communicate beforehand if there is a college at the top of your list, and make sure you’re selecting the most challenging courses you can handle.  In other words, make it easy for your counselor to be your best advocate.


For more information about how to navigate the college admissions process, contact director of Streamline Tutors, Ian Siegel who specializes in college counseling, test prep, and academic coaching.  You can visit his website at, or contact him directly at


Office: 410-200-1896

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Ian Siegel

For more information about how to navigate the college tract, contact director of Streamline Tutors, Ian Siegel who specializes in college counseling, test prep, and academic coaching. You can visit his...