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Help Them to Help You

By Robert LeVine

College applications include many pieces: grades, test scores, honors, lists of activities, and lots and lots of essays. There are a lot of pieces to perfect.

Yet some very important people are neglected too often: the high school counselor and your teachers.

Your counselor will forward your transcripts and the high school’s profile to each college that receives your application. With this information, your counselor can give an explanation of where you rank and what the school thinks of you.

Later, while the universities contemplate which applicants to accept, your counselor may get on the telephone with the college admissions office to discuss the students from your high school who have applied to that university.

Your counselor can help, but they cannot help you if they don’t know you.

The high school counselors who work on college applications usually don’t know their students until January of grade 11. Before that, they are working on the seniors who are filing applications. The “getting to know you” process usually begins with a family meeting; includes a few requests for information from the student and parent in late spring; then starts up again in the fall, when the crush of the application season is absurd.

That’s not a lot of contact between you and your school.

It is possible to give your counselors the information they need to support your admissions effort. We recommend two strategies.

First, let the counselors know what you are doing and which schools you are considering. Internally, they may decide which students will get the strongest support from your high school. You want to be part of that discussion.

Second, ask the counselors for their advice. Use them as mentors, not just as functionaries. They know things that you don’t know, and they have relationships with colleges that can help you.

Note that you do not need to arrange an in-person conference to do this. Most counselors work well from emails, which allow them to do the work on their own schedule and which do not cause the delay (and time commitment) involved with scheduled meetings.

But what about your teachers?

Please, please, please ask your teachers for the honor of a recommendation early. If possible, you should request their help before the end of grade 11. Definitely ask by the very beginning of grade 12. Teachers become busy, and they may not be able to help you at all if you ask too late.

Most importantly, give the teachers some guidance. That does not mean give them your resume.

Any teacher who takes recommendation letters seriously wants to help in the best possible way. They usually want to know what you want them to say, or at least they want guidance as to the direction of your application presentation. Resumes do not give guidance.

Instead of giving a resume to a teacher, give the teacher something useful. Parents should write the teachers a “thank you” letter – in advance – explaining what they have observed about the student over the years. In addition, parents should tell a small story of the student being that personable and interpersonal young adult. In this way, teachers will understand the direction of the application and likely also remember their own stories of the student within the classroom. Stories win. Resumes only provide teachers with bullet points to regurgitate things they have not actually witnessed. Impersonal recommendation letters add no value to your application.

Counselors and teachers play a significant role in your admissions results. In fact, some schools give a grade to the quality of their recommendations and reports. You have asked for their assistance, so take the time and help them to help you. And, when you do receive admissions offers from your favorite schools, thank everyone put out effort on your behalf.

Robert LeVine is the founder and CEO of University Consultants of America, an independent educational consultancy assisting students around the world with applications to colleges, universities and graduate schools. For more information, call University Consultants of America, Inc. at 1-800-465-5890 or visit



The power of names and the importance of saying them right

By Anu Varma Panchal

When I named my daughters, I didn’t choose anything trendy or vaguely western. If their names were to be one of the few vestiges of their heritage they’d carry forever, I wanted something unambiguous. We went with a pair of classic, two-syllable names that were pre-owned by relatives who meant a lot to us. We love their names. But they are often mispronounced, with Uma becoming “Ooma” or even once, “Yuma,” and Radha either losing the aspirated “d” or becoming “Rad-Ha,” something that annoyed her enough to write her Tropicana Speech about last year.

Listening to her practice her speech hundreds of times made me think about what constituted an American name.

Many of us have watched a nurse enter the waiting room, frown at a clipboard and scan the room for a “foreign” face, knowing it was our names she was looking at. I’ve cringed through award and graduation ceremonies where I’ve heard bizarre versions of simple names boomed out with careless confidence. Over and over again, I’ve seen literate, highly educated people look down at an unfamiliar name of two or three syllables and either balk or convert it into something easier and more familiar.

Previous generations shrugged and adopted Anglicized nicknames to make life easier for everyone. Today, not so much. This is partly because of numbers. There are enough of us with “weird” names around now that we can elbow our way into the mainstream without adjusting for others’ comfort levels. Also, in the current highly charged sociopolitical environment, many things formerly considered trivial are up for reexamination.

And names, after all, are not so trivial. A 2012 study by Rita Kohli, a professor at the University of California Riverside, concluded that mispronouncing students’ names is a micro aggression that made young students feel like their names were a burden to the teacher, resulting in them feeling less confident and less inclined to speak up in class. In 2016, the Santa Clara County Office of Education launched the “My Name, My Identity” initiative — teachers can sign a pledge on the campaign’s website to learn to say their students’ names properly. Last October, controversy erupted when “Dear Abby” (written by Jeanne Phillips) responded to a letter-writer whose Indian wife wanted to give her children Indian names. “Abby” advised the man against the idea, saying it would saddle them with a nuisance they would have to explain their whole lives. Outrage ensued. “Names have meaning. They have history,” tweeted model and writer Padma Lakshmi in response. “They tell us who we are and where we come from … Advising someone against giving their child a “foreign name” is deeply racist and problematic.”

Because we are not foreigners. At least, my kids aren’t. They were born in Brandon and Chicago, respectively, which now makes their names, like them, American of Indian heritage.

Is every case of mispronunciation a race-motivated micro aggression? Of course not. One’s linguistic background has a lot to do with how you say anything. Many Indians can’t pronounce my hometown of Kozhikode because the “zh” sound simply doesn’t exist in many languages. At a Kindermusik class in a South Chicago suburb years ago, I had no idea how to say many of the lovely Irish names on the other babies’ nametags. If I couldn’t pronounce Saoirse’s name by reading it, I couldn’t very well be resentful of her mother’s inability to say “Uma.” My own Malayalee parents and Gujarati in-laws say “Radha” in slightly different ways. Many people choose for themselves a shortened and Anglicized version of their name because they prefer it.

Ultimately, only the owner of the name needs to be comfortable with the way their name is spoken to them. For me, the decision about whether the speaker is being obnoxious or genuinely perplexed lies in the level of effort they make. There’s a world of difference between, “Am I saying that right?” and “I’m not going to attempt that.” The former acknowledges the awkwardness but indicates a desire to learn and therefore, include. The second is dismissive, rude and disrespectful.

If you grew up here in the ‘70s, ‘80s and even ‘90s, you may have had to use your Starbucks name on a regular basis. But these days when we can pick up a Khaas Baat anywhere across Florida, there’s no longer a reason to let anyone get away with a brazen, “I’m not even going to try and say that!” At a time when we have Tulsi and Kamala in politics and Kumail and Hasan in entertainment, there’s no longer an excuse for anyone to mangle your moniker.

Anu Varma Panchal is a mother of two and owner of

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