Counselor Insight

The following two counselor recommendations are among hundreds I wrote while Director of College Counseling at St. Luke's School in New Canaan, CT. They represent the extent to which I get to know the individuals I work with, and how that knowledge can be turned into a powerful message for college admissions. Although a private counselor will not write letters of recommendation on behalf of clients, families do want to be reassured that the counselor is both perceptive and skilled in helping develop the student’s message to colleges
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EXAMPLE 1:
Male, high achiever with distinctive outlook, and an interesting resume

John M. has the mind of a philosopher. He’s speculative, skeptical, analytical, imaginative, intellectually independent, always thinking. He loves academic argument--the give and take of viewpoints on ideas of consequence. As a corollary, he despises superficiality, spotting it instantly when someone offers a canned or ill-formed opinion, swatting it down with his signature asperity. John is defined most of all by this relationship with words and concepts. He struggles to soar free of routine mental processes though he simultaneously recognizes the utility of conventional modes of thought. Thus like a true philosopher, he recognizes the inevitable paradox of human life of the intelligent variety: the tension between mindless participation and thoughtful reflection, direct action and cool appraisal, immediacy and distance. To get involved means in some sense to surrender individuality, but not being involved means giving up a portion of one’s humanity. His response to this paradox is written boldly across everything he does, from schoolwork to hiking Yosemite’s backcountry to expressing his dry wit. In short, John is distinctive within the senior class, and refreshingly so, given his characteristic style of taxing the value of mundane success (doubting it) even as he pursues and attains it in numerous ways. His instinct to question is invigorating but equally reassuring is his desire to perform.

No doubt, John comes to his love of ideas—their comforting and disruptive power—by way of reading. He is an inveterate reader, having consumed more than 700 volumes over the last six or seven years. His room at home is lined with bookshelves. Books only grace his walls; no posters of rock stars, automobiles, or super models contaminate the space. If you do the arithmetic, what that means is that John has read at a pace of one hundred books per year since around the age of ten, which is, on average, about two per week! That last fact deserves an exclamation point because all of this textual consumption is in addition to books assigned by his teachers. When it comes to reading, John is an omnivore, gobbling up every genre of writing: classical literature, alternative history, real history, science fiction and fantasy, philosophy, biography, suspense, and so on. He once made a list of the books in his “library,” and it went on for more than a dozen pages of single spaced titles.

“I can’t recall when I started reading,” John says, “but I do remember the first book that had a big impact on me. It was Shelby Foote’s The Civil War. I read all three volumes in the 6th grade.” Foote’s Civil War series is 1.2 million words long.

John’s verbal precocity is abundantly displayed in the classroom. For example, last year’s AP Literature and Composition instructor wrote in a report card comment: “John is probably the most ‘present’ member of the class; he is always attentive and engaged in class discussion; he keeps me on my toes. His rapid mental reflex makes him a superb spontaneous writer as well—the best in the class on quiz paragraphs and practice AP essays.” John validated this observation, objectively speaking, by scoring a 5 on last year’s AP Lit exam. His AP US History teacher likewise complimented his active involvement in her course: “John is an avid participant in class discussion, contributing nuanced factual details or fresh insights into the topic at hand.” (He scored another 5 on the AP US History exam). Even in physics, a course not usually associated with verbal agility, John was able to use language advantageously, as last year’s honors physics instructor happily wrote, “John is excited to learn. He is sharp and analytical and not afraid to take a risk when problem solving during class because he expresses himself so well. This is what separates John from the majority of his peers, he is academically adventurous, using language as another tool of thought in a numbers-driven course.” And again, in honors French IV, his teacher commented on John’s unusual linguistic engagement: “His spoken French is fluid, interesting, and shows subtle tidbits of advanced grammar structures and varied vocabulary. He argues his points well (and quickly) in French and is able to circumlocute with relative ease.”

Overall, John has distinguished himself academically, attaining a B+ average while pursuing a load that can be termed “most demanding,” given his completion by graduation of 6 AP courses and 12 classes at the honors level. For students electing this kind of advanced coursework at SLS, a GPA of about 3.5 is considered excellent—precisely because there is no grade inflation in our evaluation of academic work. Fittingly, the faculty presented John with the Harvard Book prize at last year’s academic banquet, recognizing his genuine and deep interest in subject matter across the academic spectrum. In this sense, he exhibits greater intellectual integrity than some others whose GPA might be higher. John has never completed an assignment simply for the grade; his engagement with material has always been for its own sake. Sophomore year’s honors precalculus is a case in point, where his understanding of the material far exceeded what the grade (C+) would imply. In that course Johns grade suffered because he did not dutifully turn in every homework assignment, perceiving that the unhappy teacher (who left the following year) dispensed nightly exercises in great, unmanageable quantities simply to make life hard on his students with whom, in his last year at SLS, he had developed universally an antagonistic relationship.

Last summer, John went on a camping expedition in Yosemite National Park. He, his father, and several others hoisted 60-pound packs onto their backs and set off for a two-week hike into the backcountry. Though it meant adding extra weight to his already heavy load, John couldn‘t help stuffing three books into his pack. Is it any surprise? Like an addict tied to a drug, John, one might imagine, panics at the thought of not having a stash of words nearby. One of those books, Walden, would of course be authored by an arch individualist with a philosophical outlook famous for steadfast adherence to principle. The other volumes were Richard Brautigan’s now almost forgotten classic Trout Fishing in America and Kerouac’s less-read Big Sur—reading material with a distinctively alternative feel. “Walden was a book I had always wanted to read,” John says, “and Big Sur included some outdoor writing that I thought would go well with our trek, and someone had recommended Trout Fishing. So that’s why I took those books.” For his independent study this semester, by the way, John will continue reading books from the 1960s as he studies how writers of that decade were influenced by the American transcendentalist of the 19th century.

Yes, John does have interests beyond reading. He’s athletic and has been a stalwart member of two varsity teams for the last four years—lacrosse and soccer (captain of the latter this year). During the winter season of freshman and sophomore years, furthermore, he skated for the varsity hockey team (which was eliminated last year for budgetary reasons). But his favorite sport is Ultimate Frisbee, which he has played competitively for the last two years as a member of a local team in a non-school league. “Frisbee is a great sport,” John says, “because it’s fast, fluid, and free. You don’t have a referee blowing the whistle to enforce rigid rules like in other sports. Frisbee is mostly self-policing. The idea of cheating to get an advantage on your opponent isn’t part of the players’ mentality and pretty much makes the referee unnecessary.”

Though competitive on the playing field, John’s is not driven by the need to win. He is motivated by personal goals. Rather than rivalrous, he enjoys a challenge and takes pride in overcoming obstacles. In that sense, he competes against himself—setting a high bar in order to prove that he can accomplish what he sets out to do. Still, he is inflamed to competitive action by arrogant people who would impose their will on others. At those moments he is the first to step forward, a hard glint in his eyes, and he will throw down the proverbial gauntlet. Last year, for instance, when members of the SLS Young Republicans club behaved dismissively toward those with differing political views, John reacted by helping to found the Young Liberals, the necessary antidote to what he considered to be obnoxious posturing by the conservative group. John is not a political agitator; it’s just that instinctively he is repelled by the odor of pomposity. Self-importance sets his teeth on edge, particularly in the form of one person trying to dominate another. In a recent comment posted to his AP English class’s blog, in response to a prompt from another student, John writes: “The very idea that there is one morally superior ‘right way to live’ is absolute bunk. Every way of life is the right way, provided that it doesn’t infringe the rights of others or cause harm. To declare that one way is the best, case closed, is an incredibly narrow way to approach life, and leads to prejudice and bigotry, because if it is accepted that one way of life is superior to another than one group can use its sense of moral superiority to attack others. Similar problems are encountered under the heading of a preordained way of life. This is just another name for predestination and to accept it is to reject the tenents of free will and choice, because if how to live morally were an unchanging, unyielding constant, those who deviated would be cast from society and would become the wretched underclass. I cannot accept that any moral society would espouse an ideal that would consciously damn others for being different.” In this extended passage, you can hear the voice of an idealist, or at least that of a riled up libertarian, and imagine John’s eyes afire with resistance to ugly authoritarianism.

But wait, there is yet another side to this interesting and complex young man. He is an artist of unusual ability. For six weeks during the summer following his sophomore year, he took art classes at the Rhode Island School of Design. Up to that point, with the encouragement of his art teacher here at St. Luke’s, John was considering the possibility of pursuing an art major in college. “RISD taught me a lot of art, and also that I don’t want to be an artist,” he says. “The kids in the program were interesting but too extreme for my tastes.” John may be a philosopher with a broad streak of independence through the center of his being, but he is not an anarchist. In other words, he’s both creative and cooperative, both self-directed and constructive. He is, after all, one of the school’s most effective tour guides—articulate, witty, helpful. Most of all John is an original. Next year, his contributions to college life in and out of the classroom will match the extraordinary value of his presence on our campus: keen intelligence, a fertile imagination, a well-read viewpoint, a fierce belief in the first amendment, impeccable integrity, and (as the result of all of that) a strong inclination to bring philosophy back into the world—a concern for the examined life well lived.

Sincerely yours,

Tim Cantrick,
 
EXAMPLE 2:
Female who was first in family to attend college, overcoming adversity, setting high goals, and exhibiting a helping spirit.

There are those who set goals, and then there are those who set GOALS. The first group of people are everywhere and common; they are most of us. We set goals the way we shop for next week’s groceries: somewhat casually, knowing that the menu can be modified later. Our commitments don’t have to be that absolute because our lives can accommodate change of direction quite easily. We have the luxury of flexibility. By contrast, the second group, for various reasons, feels impelled to commit more seriously to long-term objectives—their lives are fundamentally shaped by a particular vision of the future, all of their actions inscribed with this imperative.

Miranda R. belongs to the second group. Her inner vision has been focused on a distant point in the future for as long as she can remember. When asked how she is different from her classmates, Miranda writes: “I feel I have very intense motivation. I know that only I can control my future and must take advantage of opportunities given to me. I am very optimistic. I stay positive about pursuing my dreams.” Of course, her ambitious classmates are equally driven to succeed, but their motivation is more abstract, less personal. When Miranda says, “only I can control my future,” she means that literally, that there are no resources at her disposable other than her own drive for self-invention. She was born in Peru and at the age of two moved with her family to the United States. Although her parents were educated in their native country, neither has the equivalent of an American college degree and only Spanish is spoken at home. Miranda’s mother now works full-time as an aide in a nursing home, and her father works two jobs each day—his first shift is driving a delivery truck for Airborne Express and his second is driving a Stamford city bus.

Miranda’s goal, in the broadest terms, is to fulfill the American dream--in the classic sense of the immigrant’s belief in infinite possibility, attainable through the power of hard work that maximizes personal ability and talent. More than any other member of her senior class, Miranda sees life as Opportunity (capital O) to be seized and realized. She feels this at the visceral level, and her keen awareness of life’s manifold prospects—something she never takes for granted—manifests itself in her approach to academics, her choice of activities outside the classroom, and even in her general manner.

Miranda’s academic performance deserves special commendation. In the first place, she has established a B+ average (which positions her in eighth place from the top of the class--an unofficial rank position, by the way), while carrying a course load that can be termed “very demanding” given the inclusion of 16 advanced classes: by the time she graduates in June, Miranda will have completed eleven honors classes and 5 APs in four different subject areas. She has achieved this on her own—no high-priced tutors, no surreptitious help from parents. She has managed so well because she is highly disciplined in her study habits and knows how to initiate extra-help from teachers when necessary. In the academic realm, an excellent example of how dedicated Miranda is to personal advancement and success was revealed two years ago when, following her sophomore year, she decided to enroll in a summer English class at the local community college to be better prepared for AP Literature junior year. Though she had earned an A- in 10th grade English, Miranda explains, “I knew AP was going to be a big step up from regular English, and I didn’t want to be caught off guard, so I took the summer course. It was actually very enjoyable because the other students were adult-learners who asked me for help.”

Generally speaking, Miranda’s teachers describe her school work as “solid,” and while that is far different from describing her as, say, “brilliant,” the first term is nevertheless a ringing endorsement from a faculty (at SLS) who actively resist grade inflation (consider: the highest average in this year’s class is 93.9 by a student with SATs over 1500). Miranda has strongly developed reading, writing, and critical thinking skills, and has acquired a broad knowledge base in the five core subjects by completing four years each of English, history, math, science, and foreign language. There should be no question, therefore, about her capacity for even the most rigorous college level courses next year. Furthermore, her iBT TOEFL score last summer (116/120) clearly indicates that Miranda though Spanish-speaking at home has excellent verbal facility in English, a fact that every one of her teachers can vouch for anyway.

Another descriptor that shows up repeatedly in reports on Miranda’s schoolwork is “engaged.” In the classroom, her attention is always focused on the topic at hand in subjects across the spectrum: “her diligence and serious attitude are wonderful to observe,” (Honors French III); “she is one of the most conscientious and involved students in the class” (honors chemistry); “she continues to attempt all of her assignments, and won’t hesitate to ask or answer questions when given the opportunity,” (honors Algebra II); “she is one of the most conscientious, capable and involved members of the class,” (AP Lit & Comp). The theme of dedicated effort, with successful results, is apparent throughout Miranda’s academic record.

Miranda is just as actively engaged outside the classroom. Though involved in athletics during the first two years of high school (field hockey, basketball, and softball), she has gravitated toward activities more in line with human empowerment during the last two years. As vice president of this year’s Model UN group, for instance, Miranda is one of those responsible for running meetings, preparing members for competitions, and organizing travel logistics (to annual tournaments at Harvard and the United Nations building in New York City). In addition to leadership activity, Model UN gives her a chance to insert her voice into the international diplomatic debate. Quiet spoken, Miranda is nevertheless a clear thinker whose well-articulated and logical presentations command attention and respect. She is a very effective debater. Miranda’s interest in the welfare of others has also prompted her to be an active member of the St. Luke’s School’s chapter of Amnesty International, a group that works hard to raise consciousness within the student body about conditions of deprivation, oppression, and violence in countries less fortunate than ours. Miranda and others in AI, through persistent effort, have raised money numerous times for worthy causes. Finally, she has been an active participant in the School’s Diversity Club since its inception two years ago. As a member of this group, Miranda has demonstrated in yet another way her genuine interest in fostering positive human relations.

School clubs are certainly a worthwhile venue for developing interests and skills of various kinds, but the hard test of any student’s commitment to civic action can only be the real world. In Miranda’s case, she has passed that test in spectacular fashion, volunteering as an ESL tutor last summer at a learning center in Stamford, CT. “I tutored a 55 year-old woman,” Miranda explains. “Mrs. Echeverry came to America a little over a year ago from Colombia. She still has very limited English. She came here to make money to send back to her family in Colombia—to her daughter and granddaughter.” The director of the learning center told Miranda that she only had to teach the woman essential phrases for work and emergencies, but Miranda took it upon herself to expand the instruction to include grammar. “I used some instructional materials my mother had gotten when she was trying to learn English,” she says. “I really wanted to help the woman become a good speaker, she was so fearless and wanted to succeed very badly.” Miranda says she will return next summer to continue tutoring in the program.

Miranda’s charitable spirit extends to other kinds of community service as well. During each summer following her 8th, 9th, and 10th grades, she volunteered at Stamford hospital, performing a variety of duties including direct interaction with patients—greeting them upon entry and helping to transport them around the premises. One can imagine Miranda doing these things in her inimitable way—quietly, attentively, helpfully. She is unfailingly alert to the moods and meanings of the people around her in daily life; at the hospital, where people often feel anxious and alienated, such genuine contact must have offered invaluable comfort.

In yet another forum, Miranda has displayed a similar set of people skills. Last summer she worked in a city recreation program at a public park. This was a wage-earning position, with her workday starting at 7:30 a.m. and ending at 5:00 p.m., five days per week. “I really enjoyed working with the kids,” she says. “They were 5 and 6 year olds. Sometimes they were hard to control but it was very fulfilling for me.” You have to probe to find out some of the difficult aspects of the job, since it doesn’t occur to Miranda to report these things. The park was located in a dangerous urban area, frequented by drug addicts and pedophiles. Pressed to explain, she says, “Well, we went through special training before starting the job. We had to learn CPR and basic first aid, and also how to spot signs of abuse like bruises on their bodies or what the kids might say about their home life.” The nine-hour day was spent entirely outdoors. “It got really hot, so we had to make sure everyone drank water and didn’t get dehydrated,” she adds.

Although Miranda has been raised in an intact and loving household, the physical circumstances of her life are starkly different from the lives of most of her classmates at St. Luke’s School. Her parents are blue-collar workers; they are immigrants; their English is minimally competent; income-wise, they are at the bottom end of the middle class. In the context of Fairfield County, CT, such factors can be viewed as disadvantages; they certainly aren’t advantages. For Miranda they are simply the conditions that have fostered her unrelenting commitment to what she sees as one of her primary goals in life: to be fully educated and to have a career in law, medicine, or teaching, three professions in which an idealistic person can work powerfully on behalf of others. “My dream is to someday help people who are struggling,” she says.

Sincerely yours,

Tim Cantrick