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Articles / Applying to College / Are Parent "Brag Sheet" Questionnaires Appropriate?

July 28, 2009

Are Parent "Brag Sheet" Questionnaires Appropriate?

Question: My daughter's guidance department requires parents to fill out a long and detailed questionnaire about our child to "help" them write their college recommendation letters. It looks to me like they are saying they do not know our kids well enough to write a letter and want the parents to do their work for them. Is this really appropriate? Can they claim to be confidential letters without review OR input from the applicant or parent if they are heavily based on such questionnaires, as they tell us they are?

Requesting such "brag sheets" from parents (or from the students themselves) is a pretty common practice, and it's actually one I applaud. In many typical high schools, guidance counselors shoulder unwieldy loads, and it's impossible for them to truly know the majority of their advisees. And even in smaller schools--or in those where there is a stronger student/counselor relationship--it's still likely that even the most committed counselors may overlook the key points that you or your child would like a recommendation to include.


I don't know what your school's questionnaire requires, but commonly the emphasis is on extracurricular activities. Of course, you have to answer whatever the questionnaire demands, but--whenever possible--try to go beyond the obvious undertakings that will be on your daughter's application anyway (e.g., Student Government, Varsity Volleyball, Spanish Club, Orchestra ...) and focus on her other strengths that may not be revealed elsewhere in her admission materials. For instance, is your daughter an unusually caring young woman who is good at anticipating others' needs and helping out? If so, not only should you say so, but also be sure to provide an anecdote or two as back-up (e.g., "There was that time when she saw a classmate struggling in Spanish class after being absent with a serious illness. So she offered to stay after school every day until she had helped this other girl to catch up.")

And yes, the final reference that the colleges see is still a confidential one. The counselor will be including his or her own thoughts and possibly soliciting comments from others (usually teachers) as well, if this helps to provide a more complete picture of your daughter.

Trust me, you should be glad that your school officials are gathering information this way. Usually it's the parents who know the child better than anyone else in the world, and yet their input is often overlooked in the admissions process. Back in the days when I read applications for Smith College, I frequently saw counselor references that said no more than, "[Student's name] is a conscientious young woman and will succeed at the college of her choice." Not much to go on, eh? So you should consider yourself lucky that your daughter's counselor reference will be far more thorough and that your own voice will be a part of it.

Written by

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone knows the competitive and often convoluted college admission process inside out: From the first time the topic of college comes up at the dinner table until the last duffel bag is unloaded on a dorm room floor. She is the co-author of Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions; The Transfer Student's Guide to Changing Colleges and The International Student's Guide to Going to College in America. Sally has appeared on NBC's Today program and has been quoted in countless publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Weekend, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, People and Seventeen. Sally has viewed the admissions world from many angles: As a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years, an independent college counselor serving students from a wide range of backgrounds and the author of College Confidential's "Ask the Dean" column. She also taught language arts, social studies, study skills and test preparation in 10 schools, including American international schools in London, Paris, Geneva, Athens and Tel Aviv. As senior advisor to College Confidential since 2002, Sally has helped hundreds of students and parents navigate the college admissions maze. In 2008, she co-founded College Karma, a private college consulting firm, with her College Confidential colleague Dave Berry, and she continues to serve as a College Confidential advisor. Sally and her husband, Chris Petrides, became first-time parents in 1997 at the ripe-old age of 45. So Sally was nearly an official senior citizen when her son Jack began the college selection process, and when she was finally able to practice what she had preached for more than three decades.

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