Deadlines, Parents, and Rec Letters, Oh My!

My dog distracting me from writing recommendation letters.

My dog distracting me from writing recommendation letters.

Fall is officially here and college counselors are in the thick of the busiest time of the year.  Early Decision and Early Action deadlines are looming, parents are becoming more anxious, and the amount of recommendation letters we need to write are piling up.  Yes, it must be October!

As someone with limited prior experience with any type of early application deadlines, this has been an eye-opening experience. I’ve quickly had to become well-versed in the differences between Early Decision and Early Action.  I’m a bit surprised to see how many students are applying early these days—I remember changing my mind 10,000 times between visiting my first college campus junior year and the end of senior year.  I ultimately decided what college to go to on April 28—only 3 days before the May 1 National Candidate Reply Date!  (Trust me when I say April was an excruciating month for me and my parents. I was the epitome of an indecisive, anxious teenager. Come to think of it, not much has changed in the 10+ years since I’ve applied to college, besides my age.)

I am realizing how valuable it can be for our students to receive some of their admission decisions a bit earlier.  Many students come into my office stressed out and they just want to know they’ve been admitted somewhere.  Others want to get their applications out of the way so they can focus on their classes and maybe enjoying a minute or two of their senior year.  There are also many misconceptions that come along with students applying early, and I’ve found it is my job to try to explain all the possible outcomes and scenarios.  One student was told by her peers that she was out of luck and way behind the curve because she wasn’t applying early to any college.  As much as we try as college admission professionals not to cause pandemonium and mayhem among our students, it can be inevitable when deadlines seem to be earlier and earlier every year.

The other major pressure that comes along with early application deadlines are the early deadlines for recommendation letters.  In my previous life in college admissions, I read thousands of rec letters—mostly good, thoughtful rec letters.  But I’ve also seen recs written by the same person that were identical for every single student—literally word for word—except for a name change.  I’m just now beginning to understand the demands on college counselors’ and teachers’ time and energy during the fall, so I completely appreciate the need to make the recommendation letter-writing process more efficient and less time-consuming.  However, I owe it to my students to write the best darn letter I can, and I don’t intend on taking any shortcuts.  This means I get to spend many a night (and weekend) writing away.  One of my favorite things about reading applications was getting to hear each student’s story.  In a way, my recommendation letters contribute to that story, if only to explain Johnny’s illness in 9th grade that caused his Biology grade to drop to a B- or Sally’s sports injury junior year that prevented her from becoming captain of the softball team.  However small and seemingly insignificant these details may seem, they contribute to the larger picture and over-arching themes of our student’s lives, and I’m really coming to enjoy finding new and unique ways to describe a student’s strengths.  I can’t promise I won’t use clichés or similar phrases once in a while, but I hope to be able to convey how special each and every student is (even if it means sacrificing some of my personal time to watch every Real Housewives franchise on TV).

Parents, our steadfast partners in this process, play a huge role in their child’s life and an increasingly larger role in a college counselor’s life as their student progresses through high school.  I’m finding that each family we meet with has a completely different background and perspective from the next, which keeps it interesting but also makes it difficult to predict what their huge concerns are going to be.  I’ve met with parents who tell me their student absolutely cannot apply to any college on the East Coast, even though they just listened to their student talk at length about how interested they are in a specific college/major/city on the East Coast after doing extensive research.  I’ve also met with parents who say they’re not ready to let go, but they understand that college is a time for their student to grow and learn and change, as much as it pains them to admit.  My goal is to assuage any fear/anxiety/misconceptions because I figure if the parent is informed and calm, perhaps this will rub off on the student, too.

May 1While our admission counterparts are on the road visiting college fairs and often visiting our own high schools, college counselors are holding down the fort—otherwise known as trying to find the energy to keep up with a demanding schedule and energy.  My hat is off to college reps, teachers, and counselors across the country as we attempt to find a way to guide our students and make sense of it all at the same time.  We’re in this together… May 1st is only 202 days away!

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