Maybe you spent the last year interning in a business and know your supervisor could write a stellar letter about your work ethic and passion for economics. Or you have a long term music teacher who can speak to your lifelong dedication to playing the piano. Or maybe you attend a school with thousands of students and feel like you’ve barely said ten words to your counselor or classroom teachers all year long.
If any of these scenarios hits home, then you might be considering sending a supplemental recommendation letter along with your college application. Before sending any extra materials, though, you should think hard about whether it’s the right course of action. This guide will discuss when it’s appropriate to send supplemental recommendations and when you’d be better off holding back.
To start, what are some reasons students think they should send an additional rec letter?
Why Might You Send a Supplemental Recommendation Letter?
If you’ve worked closely with someone outside of school, like a mentor, studio teacher, employer, advisor, coach, or spiritual leader, then you might consider asking him/her to provide you with a supplemental letter of recommendation.
Before going ahead and making your request, consider what exactly your reasons are. Below, I’ll discuss some good reasons for sending a supplemental rec, followed by some not so good reasons for sending one. If your reasons fall into the former category, then your next step is to find out how your colleges feel about additional recs. Every school is different, which you’ll see in some of the official policies below.
Before delving into that, though, take a look at some strong and weak reasons for sending an extra recommendation.
Strong Reasons to Send a Supplementary Recommendation
These are a few good reasons to consider submitting a supplemental recommendation, if your college allows it. Think about whether any of these reasons apply to you and your extra rec letter.
It Adds an Essential Perspective
Perhaps the best reason is that this recommendation would provide a valuable and unique perspective on you as a student and person that your other recommendation letters would not. Recommendations should shed light on your personal qualities, goals, and attitude toward learning, so a supplemental rec must be especially meaningful and revealing to justify sending with your application.
Some students feel that their application would be incomplete without input from this recommender. For instance, a spiritual leader might be able to discuss the central role that faith and community service has played in your life. A research project advisor could talk about your college-level investigations in the lab. In some way, this person could add something essential that you feel admissions officers need to know. In this case, a supplemental letter could have a positive impact on your application.
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You Barely Know Your Academic Recommenders
Another reason you might consider adding a letter—assuming you have a special recommender in mind—is to make up for lackluster letters from school officials you barely know.
If you attended a huge school with large student to teacher and student to counselor ratios, then it may have been next to impossible to get to know your recommenders well. Perhaps you’re worried that your letters will be generic, impersonal, and vague.
In this situation, I would first and foremost recommend setting up appointments with your counselor and teachers to discuss your goals and what you’d like to go into your letter, as well as give them a detailed resume and brag sheet. If you know that your letters will still be insufficient, then adding a supplemental rec from someone who knows you well could be a reasonable course of action.
Finally, some colleges actually suggest that you add a non-academic perspective to your application.
Your College Suggests It
Some colleges explicitly encourage, though don’t require, the submission of a personal recommendation, as from a peer, family member, spiritual leader, or other source. Any time your school encourages that you send something, it’s a good idea to send that material.
Now that you have a sense of some good reasons that justify sending a supplemental recommendation, let’s take a look at the flip side. What are some bad reasons for sending an extra letter?
Weak Reasons to Send a Supplementary Recommendation
Sending a supplemental rec is only a good idea if you really have put a lot of thought and intention behind it. Check out some reasons that don't support sending an extra letter.
You Think "More Is Better"
If you’re sending one simply because you think it’s a good idea to go beyond what the college requires, think again!
Many admissions officers look unfavorably on extra, unsolicited material, especially if it doesn’t add much beyond what’s already there. Requirements are there for a reason; colleges can decide on an application based on what they asked for, and they generally don’t want students to send lots of extra materials and slow down the review process.
Again, each college is different, which we’ll discuss in more detail below. But if you’re only sending an extra letter for the sake of sending an extra letter, then that’s not a good enough reason to do so. Or put another way, don’t assume that more is better without first researching your colleges’ policies.
In a similar vein, extra material could actually shine a spotlight on, rather than distract from, weaknesses in other parts of your application.
You Want to Make Up for Weaknesses in Your Application
Another weak reason is that you think an additional letter will make up for other parts of your application. In fact, your supplemental letter could have the opposite effect by alerting admissions committees that you feel insecure about the strength of your candidacy. An extra recommendation won’t necessarily balance out a weak extracurricular section.
There’s an old saying in admissions, “The thicker the file, the thicker the kid.” This saying means that students who send too many additional documents may not have the credentials to get accepted based on the required materials. A bunch of extras could raise red flags, rather than impress admissions officers, about your merit.
Your Parents Know the Mayor
Another mistake, though not all that common, is that students send a rec from a famous or prestigious person, thinking the name will stand out and impress admissions officers. As discussed above, letters should come from people who know you well and can give you a meaningful evaluation. A famous recommender won't impress the committee on its own; if you don't really know the person, but just have a family connection, it could come off as superficial name-dropping.
You Don't Trust Your Academic Recommenders
I mentioned above that a supplemental rec can make up for generic academic recommendations. However, this applies if and only if you have a special external recommender in mind. Plus, you should have a strong reason for needing to rely on an outside source, like a huge high school with low teacher or counselor interaction. If you had the opportunity to get to know your faculty, but still feel like strangers, then you should push yourself to connect with them more by participating in class and setting up meetings.
If you don't know your teachers or counselor well or don't trust them to do a good job, you should spring into action (those teacher and counselor recs are important!). There are steps you can take to meet with your recommenders and share information that will help them personalize your letter.
Again, if this is your only reason for asking an external recommender, but you don’t have a special person in mind, then you’d probably be better off communicating with your teachers and counselors and doing everything you can to help them produce effective letters.
Besides examining and evaluating your personal reasons for wanting to send a supplemental rec, you should also research your colleges’ policies. Schools have different stances, but they also repeat some of the same themes, as you’ll see below.
Never a good idea to overwhelm admissions officers with lots of extra materials.
How Do Colleges Feel About Supplemental Recommendations?
There aren’t too many colleges that outright prohibit supplementary letters of recommendation, but some advise caution or subtly discourage their submission. A college, for instance, might state that it shaped its requirements intentionally and don’t want applicants to send more or less than what they asked for.
Other colleges stress that a supplemental recommendation is only a good idea if it really adds something important and substantial to "the story of you." This stance puts pressure on you to decide whether or not your letter is worth sending.
A few other schools, like Emory, actually invite a personal recommendation. Again, any time a school suggests that you do something extra, make sure to do it! Consider it like any other requirement.
You may be able to find this information on your college’s admissions website. If not available—some sites are more detailed than others—then give the admissions office a call and ask how the committee feels about supplemental recs. It’s important to do your research on all aspects of your application.
To help you out, we’ve compiled some statements from a few schools on supplemental recommendations. Note the frequent emphasis that it must add something substantial to your application to justify sending it along.
Select Schools and Their Stances on Supplemental Recommendation Letters
Perhaps the students who are most guilty of sending unnecessary extra material are those applying to selective schools. In trying to stand out from the competition, they send additional materials. However, you’ll see that some of these selective schools also want you to be extremely selective about what you send...
“If you feel the need to submit extra information, you may ask one additional recommender to write on your behalf. Please do not solicit this additional letter unless you feel it will add substantially to your application. The writer should know you well personally or have mentored you closely in some capacity. For example, if you have engaged in advanced scientific research, you should consider asking your research mentor to write a letter of recommendation for you.”
Columbia is more specific about what external source can recommend you (and more explicit about discouraging supplemental recs):
"We welcome an additional letter of recommendation if the writer has worked with you in a researcher or college course capacity...The Committee discourages the submission of additional recommendations, as admissions decisions will be based primarily on the required recommendations from your high school teachers and secondary school/guidance counselor."
The University of Penn also allows one extra letter:
"If an applicant would like to submit another letter of recommendation beyond this requirement, we strongly recommend that it is not from another academic teacher. Examples of an appropriate recommender include an athletic coach, an internship or research supervisor, a boss at a part-time job, or a local clergy member. These additional recommendations are only helpful if the recommender knows the student personally and can write specifically about him or her."
Princeton doesn’t exactly encourage supplementals, but it allows them if they provide something novel and meaningful:
"We believe that the required teacher and guidance counselor references give us much of the information we need to make thoughtful, well-informed decisions. Additional letters are only helpful if the person writing the recommendation knows the candidate well and can provide new, detailed information."
Brown similarly emphasizes that supplementals must go above and beyond the other letters:
"In our experience, the required counselor recommendation and two teacher recommendations provide all we need to make a thoughtful, informed admission decision. If, however, someone has unique knowledge of certain strengths or accomplishments that would not be addressed in the required recommendations, you are welcome to have another person write on your behalf."
Vanderbilt draws on the same theme in a succinct way, emphasizing quality over quantity:
"If students wish to submit additional letters of recommendation from teachers, coaches, employers, or anyone else who can bring something new to the application, they may include those as well. We strongly advise that these extra letters offer additional information about the applicant, and we encourage a “quality—over—quantity” approach."
Are you applying to MIT? Here’s what they have to say:
“Most applicants, and most admitted students, submit no supplemental recommendations. Some applicants and admitted students submit one supplemental recommendation; a few submit two. Submitting more supplemental recommendations will not disqualify you, but it is rarely necessary.”
Sensing a theme? Quality beats quantity every time. If you’re sending a supplemental rec, make sure it truly adds something substantial, important, and not to be missed.
Does this sound like a tough call to make? Read on for help on deciding whether or not your supplemental rec is worth sending.
How to Decide Whether or Not to Send a Supplemental Recommendation
As you can tell, you only want to send a supplemental rec if you feel it can truly help your application. Sending one for no good reason could actually leave a bad impression with admissions officers, effectively making your extra work not just unnecessary, but even harmful to your chances of getting accepted.
Assuming your school allows you to submit an extra recommendation online or by mail, you should think about your reasons, along with researching your colleges’ policies, before asking your supplemental recommender for a letter.
First, ask yourself if this letter adds value and insight to your application that’s not already there. What exactly does it communicate, and why is it important for admissions officers to know this about you? What new dimension does it add—perhaps related to community service, professional work, long term mentorship, or college level research—and how is this side of you relevant to your success at college? By pinpointing your specific reasons for sending this letter, you can make sure it will add to your application in a substantial way.
If you have strong reasons for sending it and your college allows it, then a supplemental letter could round out your application and ensure that admissions officers know everything about you that they need to make a well-informed decision. On the flip side, don’t stress if you don’t have that special recommender outside of school! As Brown says, and most schools agree, “In our experience, the required...recommendations provide all we need to make a thoughtful, informed admission decision.”
Not only is it important to think carefully about why and who you're asking for a supplemental recommendation, but you also want to put the same planning into who you ask for teacher recommendations. Check out this guide to learn about who you should ask for a letter of rec.
Once you're clear on all your requirements, you want to make sure you collect the strongest letters you can. This guide explains what makes a strong letter of recommendation, and what you can do to help your teachers and counselors write the best ones possible.
Finally, considering the perspective on the other side will also help you get the most effective recommendation letters for your application. Learn about what exactly admissions officers are looking for when the read recommendation letters, and why they're so important to your application.
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Rebecca graduated with her Master's in Adolescent Counseling from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has years of teaching and college counseling experience and is passionate about helping students achieve their goals and improve their well-being. She graduated magna cum laude from Tufts University and scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT.