When it comes to college applications, there are some things you must submit, and many things you can submit. You’ll have some freedom in requesting letters of recommendation and considering whether to submit any extra materials. We’ve got some tips to help you make those decisions.
Let’s start with recommendations. Before you know who to ask, you’ll need to look at what’s required by each college you’re interested in. Most colleges will ask you for a counselor recommendation (aka “the School Report”). If you’re at a school that doesn’t have a college counselor, you can ask a principal, assistant principal, or another advisor for this recommendation.
Along with the counselor recommendation, many schools want recommendations from one or two teachers (it’s unlikely to be more than two unless you’re applying to a very specialized program). You should start thinking about which teachers you want to have write for you and ask them by the end of your junior year or within the first few weeks of senior year. Letters of recommendation should come from 11th– or 12th-grade teachers of core academic subject areas: English, history, math, science, or foreign language. Even if your 12th-grade teachers are just getting to know you, it’s important that colleges get a sense of who you are now and what you’re like in the classroom. If you can get outstanding letters and demonstrate a range of skills, that’s great. But if you’ll get better recommendations from an English teacher and a history teacher, don’t sacrifice the better letter for the sake of getting one from STEM.
You might see some other kinds of recommendations too, but they’re less common. For example, some schools will ask for a peer recommendation from someone closer to your age, and some even ask for a parent letter! You may be allowed to submit additional recommendations beyond what’s required. A word of caution here: just because certain colleges allow more letters, it doesn’t mean they want them. If you’re asking for extra recommendations, make sure they add new information not contained in the other letters. These are letters that might come from a coach or a supervisor at a job or internship.
There are other optional supplemental materials you might submit too, like the URL for your blog or an art portfolio. Here again, only add to your application if there’s significant new information to be gained. Keep in mind, too, that admissions officers are generalists; they don’t necessarily have expertise in the kind of work you’re submitting. Some highly selective schools will send these materials out to their faculty members for evaluation, but unless you’re applying to a portfolio- or audition-based program, they won’t weigh heavily in your final admissions decision. They will, however, elevate your extracurricular activities beyond what’s typical of even a high-achieving student.
The bottom line is to make sure that anything you add to the application provides new and relevant information for admissions officers. Don’t add so much that it diverts attention from things the colleges really care about like transcripts, test scores, or even your level of engagement in other activities. Make sure the main application is as solid as it can be; that means prioritizing your personal essay, the activities section of the Common App, and any supplemental essays that individual colleges ask for.