Supplementary Letters of Recommendation

Letter of recommendation.A supplementary letter of recommendation—one that someone has written and submitted to a college or university on your child’s behalf, above and beyond the required teacher and counselor recommendations—has the potential to strengthen or weaken your child’s folder, depending on the circumstances.  I hold my clients to strict criteria when they ask me about forwarding this kind of unsolicited material:

  • One person clearly stands out as the appropriate author of the letter.
  • That person knows your child well.
  • The letter would provide new and relevant information about your child that readers would not get from other parts of the application.
  • The letter would emphasize positive aspects of your child’s profile, rather than explain negative ones.
  • Your child feels comfortable asking the person for a letter of support.
  • Your child is prepared to do some legwork to make writing the letter as easy as possible for the person he is asking.

I asked several deans of admission about supplementary letters when I was researching my book, The Thinking Parent’s Guide to College Admissions, and heard multiple times the old admissions adage, “the thicker the file, the thicker the kid.”  One additional letter might work well; however, as former Grinnell Dean of Admission and Financial Aid Jim Sumner noted in our discussion, a “bulky” folder filled with extra letters that lack relevance “can actually hurt you.”  Students who submit numerous outside letters frequently end up with a collection of them that all say the same thing, “a waste of everybody’s time,” according to Julie Browning, who served as Rice University’s dean of undergraduate enrollment for 27 years.  Consider a supplementary letter if you can think of one person who stands head and shoulders above the crowd as the clear choice to write it.

Knowing your child well matters:  An additional recommender should have worked with your child in some capacity and be able to narrate a significant and relevant story about him.  Some families actively seek what former Cornell Associate Provost for Admissions and Enrollment Doris Davis dubbed “‘designer’ letters of recommendation,” the ones with “the state senate seal or a celebrity’s signature” that they think will impress readers.  Admissions officers generally find these letters thin on content and stiff in tone—”worthless,” according to former MIT Dean of Admissions Marilee Jones.

Davis, a former colleague from Yale who worked in admissions at several highly selective institutions, remembered reading three identical letters—”VERBATIM”—from a world-renowned religious figure for three different students in the same applicant pool.  She also recalled a letter from a former U.S. Secretary of State recommending the grandchild of a high-ranking foreign dignitary.  The Secretary of State had clearly never met the student and, even more distracting to Davis, misspelled the applicant’s name!  Davis cautioned against the errors that can take place when students stray outside their normal range of relationships to get an individual to write a letter on their behalf.

Supplementary letters that make a positive difference add new and relevant information about an applicant.  Most of the unsolicited letters that I read in admissions at Yale simply repeated what I had already seen.  Helpful and relevant information can come from an employer, a coach, a therapist, a parent, even the student himself!  Laura Clark, who worked in admissions at Princeton before she moved to the other side of the desk as director of college counseling at Fieldston, used to appreciate letters from students at resource-constrained high schools that painted realistic portraits of their environment.  Students seeking admission to a selective college or university while they work under adverse conditions at their high schools should especially consider soliciting an additional letter of recommendation from someone who can comment on their academic strengths, such as an instructor in an enrichment program like Upward Bound, GEAR UP, or Urban Scholars.  In acknowledging the uneven distribution of teacher quality across schools, Jim Sumner (formerly at Grinnell) observed that teachers at under-resourced schools may just not express themselves that well in writing.  A supplementary letter that speaks specifically to academics would have added value in that context.

I frequently encounter families who want to use supplementary letters to explain a potential weak link in an application.  One high school junior wanted a dean to write a letter of explanation for a low grade that she felt stemmed from a personality conflict with the teacher.  These types of letters can backfire:  “The weaker the grades, the weaker the test scores, the more labored the explanations of these things,” University of Michigan’s Ted Spencer remarked.  Conversely, a line or two in the context of a letter that emphasizes the positive may provide useful information.  An orchestra conductor writing about a student’s musical talent, for example, would assist admissions officers by mentioning that the student had played in a  concert at Carnegie Hall the night before her SATs.  Note the difference between this one-line clarification in an overall positive context versus an entire letter focusing on the low SAT scores.

Finally, your child must feel comfortable asking somebody to write a letter on his behalf. He must also be willing to provide the recommender with one or two sentences explaining his enthusiasm for each of the schools to which he is applying.  Adding a supplementary letter of recommendation to your child’s application warrants careful consideration.  Reflect on these criteria before adding unsolicited information to an already chock-full folder.

Do you need help determining whether someone should write a supplementary letter of recommendation to support your child’s college applications?  Contact me for a complimentary 20-minute telephone consultation.