It is the time of year that homeschool parents are frantically polishing their homeschool documents that will appear in the School Report section of college applications. One of those documents will be the Counselor Letter – one of the most difficult things I did as my child’s high school guidance counselor. Not physically hard, but emotionally draining. Perhaps more than anything else, it crystallized for me our homeschool journey. I re-lived all our ups and downs, our joys and heartbreaks, our successes and our failures.
I saw in my mind’s eye the curly-headed little girl who lived life at a gallop with clothing askew grow up into a beautiful and composed young woman. I walked again the journey of helping a shy and awkward introvert who cried over Algebra II turn into a brilliant mathematician who is comfortable in any social situation.
Of course, I did not write about all of this, but it was a powerful framework as I began to tell the unique story of each of my children. I encourage you to take your time with this letter. (I started the summer after the junior year and spent several months). Not only is it of critical importance for your child’s admission possibilities, but it can also be an incredibly rewarding experience for you.
I began each letter by introducing the student as a senior is our school. You must take off your “mom” hat and think like a counselor. I then described the student’s learning style, using adjectives that showed how they would function in a classroom or on campus. Then I gave a brief summary of our school situation. In our case, we were in an extremely rural area with limited options. By making this fact clear, admissions officers would be more likely to understand our unconventional record.
Next up is a paragraph showing how our homeschool functions. Are you still the primary teacher or does your student take responsibility for their own learning in high school? Does the student take the most rigorous classes available to them?
I am often asked how long to make the letter. Don’t worry about length. Just tell your story beautifully and the length will take care of itself. Just so you know, my letters have been from 2-3 pages. By the same token, your letters must not be rambles. They have a very specific purpose and you should never stray from that. They should, in concrete detail, embellish your student’s talking points in a way that no other source can do.
While my daughter’s application was able to cover the amount of time devoted to music, some numbers for activities, and a short essay about the joy she has found as a music teacher, I was able to tell the story of her combining her music and leadership ability to take complete responsibility for a huge fund-raising concert. I could paint a picture for the audience of how she juggled the many roles of fund-raiser, marketer, saleswoman, graphic designer, and emcee. I showed the admissions officer how she conducted herself in the boardroom and with local media tycoons.
Natalie was able to tell briefly about being an award winner at the national NCFCA Tournament. Since there wasn’t room on another part of the application, I got to tell the “rest of the story.” Our family moved back to Oklahoma and shortly thereafter went through a financial crisis so severe that she could no longer travel to tournaments. Out of that devastation, she and a friend created a national online debate network. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, she took a personal tragedy and built an organization that blessed many others.
I am careful to objectively show how my students compare to others their age, how they are unique. I am not afraid to discuss weaknesses and how they have been overcome. In fact, if your letter is completely positive, it can backfire. You can come off as totally un-objective, which is what they expected from a homeschool mom. Just be careful of being negative or whiney.
Finding the Right Conclusion
The final wrap-up is very important. It must be powerful. It must be persuasive. It must be honest. Perhaps it would help to see how I ended the letters for my children.
Austin: “There are many gifted students who have had every advantage and opportunity. This has not been the case for Austin. Not only has he spent the majority of his life on an extremely rural farm and ranch, making special classes and tutors impossible, but our family has been financially unable to provide him with traditional experiences. For several years, Austin worked 10-20 hours a week doing construction work to help support our family. This was on top of farm chores and other odd jobs. While this was a very difficult time, it produced a young man with an incredible work ethic who manages his time well and is grateful now to have 8-10 hours a day in which to study.
Austin is an unusual mix of intense scientist, runner, policy analyst, comedian, political aficionado, backpacker, social/technological trend observer, avid reader, and compassionate friend. As a parent/teacher, it has been a challenge to deal with his intense nature, but after years of helping him sand off the rough edges, I can honestly say I enjoy the young man who now towers over me. He has chosen to live intentionally, to confront his weaknesses, and to build on his strengths. He is now comfortable with himself and with others.”
Natalie: “I have been involved with many high school students over the years, most of which fit fairly comfortably into certain categories, but I have to say that Natalie defies classification. She is equally fascinated by untangling the multiple voices of a Bach violin fugue and by analyzing the molecular signaling processes in slime mold. She loves Jane Austen and is a connoisseur of high tea, yet gets an adrenaline rush over calculus problems. She delights in performing for crowds in a beautiful long ball gown and then, the next morning, pulls on her work boots to care for the 1,000 pound steers in her feedlot. She is a leader who listens before she talks, an efficient administrator who is a gentle encourager, a personality who is strong willed, yet chooses to pay attention to those with greater experience. I admire her very much.”
You Can Do It!
It is important to keep in mind that admissions offices are very small. They remember a turn of phrase, particularly if they see if often enough. It is fine to use other people’s letters for inspiration, but never, ever copy a phrase, even if it perfectly describes your child. Not only is it plagiarism, but could hurt your child in the process if an admissions officer decides your documents are just copied from someone else.
As a homeschool parent, teacher, and counselor, you have a most unique vantage point. You have the privilege of showing growth over a lifetime, of telling the most complete story the college will get of this child. It must be bluntly honest without being negative. It must be compelling without being sappy. It’s a big job, but one that brought me much joy.
Copyright 2009 Home Life, Inc., PO Box 1190, Fenton, MO 63026-1190, (800) 346-6322, www.home-school.com. Originally published in Practical Homeschooling May/June 2009. A Practical Homeschooling subscription is $19.95 for six issues. Used by permission.
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