Beginning with the 2014 application cycle, the Common Application now formally accommodates non-academic recommendation letters through the online portal, in addition to those from teachers and counselors. So, how do you make the best use of this option?
The answer may be this: by doing nothing at all. Each college requests the relevant data they need to make informed admissions decisions. While some colleges actively request a non-academic reference, most do not. In many cases, that is because an extra recommendation letter is not necessary.
When not to submit a supplemental recommendation letter
A good recommendation letter adds value. Does your dad know the mayor, and she’s willing to print a generic form letter on your behalf? Her prestige is irrelevant to your admissions decision. Will your pastor explain how important spirituality is to you? Your leadership in youth group already signals that to admissions staff. Can your coach talk about your great on-field communication skills? Could be helpful, but your history teacher is already praising your listening and synthesizing skills in group work—and that application of your talent is more directly relevant to college success.
In previous posts we’ve discussed how to solicit recommendation letters that help colleges understand your intellectual curiosity and place within a campus community. Before sending supplemental recommendation letters, ask yourself, “What insight does this add that is not already shared elsewhere?”
When a recommendation letter can be helpful
There are certainly times when a non-educator can add a valuable perspective to your application. When giving application assistance as a College Coach admissions consultant, I work with students individually to identify these situations. Perhaps you are not an active class participant, but your boss at the hardware store can talk about your great rapport with customers and how folks frequently ask for your specific assistance. In this case, your ability to communicate and voice your opinions may not otherwise be clear to the admissions staff. Or perhaps you are not a captain of your soccer team, but you played a pivotal role in establishing a safe space for team bonding during a drama-filled season. Your coach may provide insight on your leadership and vision in a way that is not already captured by your résumé.
But remember, more is not always better
When I was an admissions officer at Tufts, I read a lot of recommendation letters—generally, three per file: two teachers and a counselor. My record maximum was seven, though other colleagues made it into double digits. At this point, extra letters are simply noise—you become “the kid who submitted seven letters,” rather than an applicant memorable for your unique traits.
The inclusion of a non-academic evaluation on the Common App certainly makes it easier for non-teachers to upload recommendation letters. But if your application already represents you in a way that makes you proud, don’t submit extra recommendation letters simply because the Common App allows you to do so.