The Counselor letter was one of the most difficult things I did as my
child’s high school guidance counselor. It was not physically hard, but
it was 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 struggled with 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.
Design a School Letterhead
Some of my clients have hired professionals to design a letterhead for
them and the results were fabulous. My students each created their own
with our desktop publishing software and came up with a very suitable
design. Whatever method you choose, I encourage you to make sure it is
professional and use it any time your school contacts the university.
Our letterhead included the name of our school, address, phone, student
name, birth date, and common application number or social security
number. Different schools ask for different numbers. But whatever number
they ask for, they want it on EVERY piece of paper you send them.
I began each letter by introducing the student as a senior at 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
Next up was 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 ramble. 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 and also 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.
For Austin’s letter I wrote: “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.”
For Natalie I wrote: “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
As a homeschool mom, 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.
Jeannette Webb has worked with high school students for over 25 years
helping them develop public speaking, leadership, and interview skills,
as well as prepare effective scholarship applications. As Oklahoma State
University’s first Truman Scholar (the American equivalent of the Rhodes
Scholar), she went on to receive a B.S. in Human Development and an M.S.
in Family Economics. She spent a decade with the OSU Cooperative
Extension Service as 4—H and Youth Development Specialist and Resource
Management Specialist before she became a home educator in 1993. A
former OCHEC Trustee, she has also been a support group leader and
conference speaker. In 2005, Jeannette received a Presidential Scholar
Distinguished Teacher Award. Jeannette teaches “Homeschooling Through
High School” seminars and is a college coach dedicated to helping
homeschool students matriculate to America’s top colleges. She can be
reached through aiminghigherconsultants.com.