May 2017 Counselor News
By Brian Estrada, Associate Dean of College Counseling, Providence Academy
The return of students to your school building in the fall always brings excitement and optimism, but for guidance counselors these feelings are also accompanied by the daunting task of composing counselor letters of recommendation (CLORs) for college-bound seniors. Whether one considers the high student-to-counselor ratios prevalent here in Minnesota or the fact that there is often uncertainty over how CLORs will be used and who actually reads them, it is clear that some advice might be helpful.
What follows are some suggestions which were formulated with a mind towards supporting those students entering the most accomplished applicant pools, but they apply equally and effectively to those students seeking competitive scholarships to their “on target” colleges, or for students aspiring to any college that is a ‘personal reach’ in light of their particular academic profile.
Know your audience and its challenges
- For colleges outside the region, assume your reader has little firsthand experience with Minnesota and with your specific community. While there are exceptions, as a general rule the Midwest experiences considerable turnover in admission representation and is often assigned to a less tenured admission officer at out of region colleges. Assume the primary reader for your students is relatively new to the admissions field and grew up in a different part of the country. While every admission reader wants to see students in their assigned regions fare well in the selection process, they might enjoy less clout within their office if they just started their career.
- Admission competitiveness for colleges at all points of selectivity almost always trends in one direction: it gets tougher to get in each year. Therefore, students are increasingly in need of strong supporting materials (like the CLOR) not only for the most selective colleges, but possibly at colleges where a candidacy like theirs may have until recently required little discussion. Even where admission seems assured, the CLOR can take on considerable importance in the awarding of the top merit scholarships.
Do what you can, and avoid unforced errors
- Go to bat for your best students! Use powerful, enthusiastic language and superlative statements when they are warranted.
- Certain words have become cliché and/or do little to truly distinguish your student within an accomplished pool. Examples include hard-working, reliable, driven, nice, polite, passionate and unique.
- Do not assume an admissions reader will implicitly grasp the demands of particular extracurricular activities (e.g., Minnesota high school hockey) or the student’s mix of family and personal commitments. When there is a story to tell along these lines, provide those important details.
- Make sure your school has a Profile for Colleges that clearly explains the academic policies of your school (e.g., grading policies, admission to honors courses), the available curriculum and special programs.
- Do not list former students who have been admitted, because it is possible that the reader did not evaluate those other students
- Avoid physical descriptions of the student
- Avoid generalizations or a string of adjectives unless you can also provide telling examples
Spend your (limited) time on what is most important and helpful
- Rather than summarizing information appearing elsewhere in the application (especially when constrained by your caseload), paint the big picture. Counselors can accomplish, in only a few sentences, what your students cannot do for themselves: conceptualizing their experiences and accomplishments into something that a fellow educator can appreciate and digest.
- Reinforce key points about the academic policy context of your school and the student’s more telling academic decisions. Talk up your school and its curriculum; if there are ‘notorious’ courses even strong students sometimes avoid or special academic experiences available to your students, talk about these in your letter.
- The CLOR is important, but is not the only form of supporting materials a student receives. Have knowledge of the writing style of those teachers who students most often approach for academic references. Ideally, commentary on academic rigor and intellectual qualities can be left to teachers who have observed these directly, but sometimes it does fall to the CLOR to go the extra mile to paint that picture.
- Illustrate the strong intangibles that could distinguish your student, those interesting intellectual or personal attributes that warrant the college’s attention. Be specific! For example, “Suzie’s transcript may not indicate a top of class student, but she spent last summer reading the complete works of Victor Hugo, and I have never met a student with better gifts for intellectual and adult conversation.”
When exceptional students look outside the Midwest
- In the specific instance of supporting those students aspiring to highly selective colleges outside of the Midwest, there are additional unknowns and possible pitfalls. These were well captured in a commentary last year written by Jon Boekenstedt, DePaul University’s chief enrollment officer, as he reminisced about serving on the admissions committee at a highly selective college. As he noted, ‘Midwestern humility’ is indeed a prized and worthy virtue, but it does not serve our students well in the crucible of a competitive admission or scholarship review.
- For the most selective colleges, envision a scenario in which the first reader must route at least seven of every 10 files directly to deny. This means seven out of every 10 students with the accomplishments that would lead them to apply to a very selective college — all near the top of the class, with test scores in the 90th percentile or higher, strong academic programs and impressive personal accomplishments — are removed from the pool after just one read. In light of this, it is incumbent upon all of us to be assertive and unequivocal in support of our most exceptional students.
- Most Midwest schools and students enjoy fewer of the “hooks” that strongly influence admission outcomes within school groups in other regions. From a college’s point of view, they must think more carefully about applicants from schools where recruited athletes will be admitted, communities that admissions officer visit annually or where many of the college’s alumni live, or where there is an established pattern of receiving a significant number of applicants. Most of these scenarios do not apply to our Minnesota schools, making it even more important to make the case for admission as best as we can.
About the author: Brian Estrada spent nine years working as an undergraduate admission officer for Vanderbilt University and Dartmouth College. In 2013, he transitioned to a college counseling position at Providence Academy in Plymouth. This article was crafted from a session titled “Straight Talk about Counselor Recommendations,” presented at May 2016’s Midwest Association of College Admission Counseling conference in Minneapolis and November 2016’s Minnesota ACAC College Counseling Institute. Special thanks to Jessica Forniash (Randolph School-Huntsville, Ala., formerly Vanderbilt University), Kelly Woodward (Creighton University) and Nora Main (Macalester College), who contributed to those sessions and whose insights were incorporated into this article.
With the end of the school year fast approaching, students and families may not have put summer college visits on their radar yet, but Minnesota Private College Week can help them check it off their summer to-do list. This year’s event runs June 26-30 with sessions from 9:30 to noon and 2 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. each day on all 17 of our campuses.
Students can register themselves or parents can do it for them, and we recommend visiting more than one campus. When we survey parents and students after the event, nearly half wish they had gone on more visits!
We’ve also created following resources to help families plan their visits; please consider sharing these:
- what past students and parents had to say about event
- our tips on how to make the most their visit
- directions and parking info for each campus
- transportation options if they can’t or don’t want to drive
- suggestions on how to make a road trip out of it
Need to register students for Minnesota Private College Week?
We’ve created a group visit registration spreadsheet to make it easier for you to register your group, especially if you’re planning to bring a large one. You can find it under “Registration is highly recommended” (item #2) on our website.
Our article on coordinating group summer visits also might be a good read if you’re planning on bringing a group.
After her first year of college at Iowa, Ali Carlson wanted to make a change and transferred her sophomore year to Concordia College in Moorhead. Her whole family is helping support her college experience, but she also credits the financial aid office for helping make it possible. “For me, because of financial aid, it was more affordable to go to a liberal arts college than a state school,” she said. Read more of Ali’s story.
Although our 17 member institutions awarded 29 percent of all bachelor’s degrees in Minnesota in the 2015-16 academic year, they awarded a larger proportion of bachelor’s degrees in several key areas of study, including:
- 50 percent of physical sciences degrees (chemistry, physics, geology and astronomy)
- 48 percent of history degrees
- 41 percent of foreign languages degrees
- 36 percent of mathematics and statistics degrees
- 36 percent of health professions degrees
It’s also worth noting that women earned 45 percent of the bachelor’s degrees awarded in STEM disciplines at our colleges. (That’s compared to 35 percent at the University of Minnesota and 30 percent at Minnesota State universities.)
Want to know more about how our colleges stack up? Read the full Bachelor's Degrees Granted report.
Students are often expected to have relevant work experience as well as academic experience by the time they graduate, but internships are often unpaid, which can make them unfeasible for students who need to support themselves financially while in college. That, in turn, puts these students at a disadvantage when applying for jobs after they graduate. Read how St. Catherine University is opening the door to the internship experience to more students.
Employers are looking for it, and private colleges are focusing on it. As students graduate and enter the working world, intercultural competency is increasingly valuable, and the study of foreign languages — whether it’s a couple of classes or a major — help accomplish that. Learn how St. Olaf College uses the study of foreign languages to expand students’ understanding of people and culture.
Augsburg's acclaimed StepUP Program, staff take on increased national role in reducing stigma
Augsburg College's new Executive Director for Recovery Advancement ensures U.S. students who seek to live in recovery from substance use disorders have greater opportunities for success.
NYC journalist and professor headlines first journalism symposium
During a Bethel University journalism symposium, former Wall Street Journal writer Paul Glader addressed media literacy and journalism ethics amidst alternative facts and fake news.
Carleton students explore civil-rights movement’s roots on spring break trip
Eighteen Carleton College students experienced historical civil-rights sites in Ohio to Washington to Alabama. Read the students’ daily blog entries about the highly impactful experience.
Pi Mu Epsilon undergraduate math research conference held at Saint Ben’s/Saint John’s
The College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University hosted its 38th annual conference for students from Minnesota, western Wisconsin and eastern North and South Dakota.
St. Scholastica physician assistant program earns accreditation
The College of St. Scholastica’s new physician assistant program has earned provisional accreditation, and its first cohort of 30 students will begin taking classes this fall.
Concordia College student receives Gaither Fellowship
Concordia College graduate Matthew Lillehaugen ’17 has been selected for the James C. Gaither Fellowship by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
CSP partners with Mitchell Hamline to offer new MBA
Mitchell Hamline School of Law will offer its health care compliance program as part of the MBA degree at Concordia University, St. Paul, under a recent agreement between the two schools.
Gustavus junior wins Goldwater, prepares for summer research at Harvard
Gustavus Adolphus College biochemistry and mathematics major Katie Aney was recently named a Barry M. Goldwater Scholar and will research at Harvard through the Amgen Scholars Program this summer.
Hamline receives nearly $1 million grant for science teacher education
Hamline University’s Center for Global Environmental Education was awarded a second grant of $457,000 from the Minnesota Department of Education to continue innovate science teacher training.
Macalester professor Marlon James is one of 52 notable Minnesotans
The Macalester College professor and 2015 Man Booker Prize-winning author is a bonafide literary superstar but chooses to stay in Minnesota.
Saint Mary’s announces Mayo Clinic collaboration, $5 million gift, expansion in Rochester
Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota is collaborating with Mayo Clinic on a new physician assistant program. A related $5 million gift will bring about a Rochester expansion.
St. Catherine students earn national recognition for research project
Three St. Catherine University students will present their collaborative research project at “Posters on the Hill” in Washington, D.C.
Moonlight writer says St. Olaf Choir song ‘shaped his life’
Moonlight writer Tarell Alvin McCraney tells Out Magazine that the St. Olaf Choir’s performance of “City Called Heaven” is among 10 songs that shaped his life.
St. Thomas is first in Minnesota named Changemaker Campus
The University of St. Thomas has been named a Changemaker Campus by Ashoka U, a global higher education consortium inspiring a culture of social innovation.
Interested in more campus news? View past news items from all our campuses.
Here are some of the best recent articles that we’ve come across:
The ideal college education can yield rocket scientists who write poetry, San Diego Union-Tribune, Mar. 30, 2017
Former interns tell how they landed a first job, The New York Times, Apr. 7, 2017
Surfing the 4th industrial revolution: artificial intelligence and the liberal arts, The Brookings Institution, Apr. 11, 2017
Common Application makes more changes for 2017-2018 college admissions season, Washington Post, Apr. 13, 2017
4 things we don't know about AP tests, National Public Radio, May 1, 2017