Many schools, scholarships, and jobs will require that applicants submit letters of recommendation as part of the application process. However, some positions will also give the option of adding supplemental letters of recommendation if you so choose. This raises the natural question: how do you decide whether to submit a supplemental letter of recommendation? As I hope you have picked up from my previous blog posts, there is often no single rule of thumb for how to go about the application process (that’s why companies like ours exist), and these questions are best answered on a case by case basis. Nevertheless, there are some questions you can ask yourself to help you decide whether submitting supplemental letters of recommendation is a good idea.
1. Would this letter of recommendation present new information to the admissions committee?
The person reading your applications will likely read hundreds or thousands of other applications just like yours. Therefore, your goal is to make sure that you stand out. The strategy that you will often hear is that you should pick five attributes for your application and construct a story through your cover letter, resume, writing samples, and letters of recommendation that each contribute a piece to the narrative. The mistake I see most often is that applicants writing samples and letters contain the same exact information. This repetition is not only boring for the reader, but also useless and time-consuming. Unsurprisingly, they do not like it when you do this.
Most applications have a page or word maximum on the writing samples, thereby limiting what you can say about yourself. This means that you should think of the letters of application as an opportunity to give the information that you did not have room to fit elsewhere. If there is additional information you would like to include, then a supplemental letter of recommendation might be good idea; if you have already said everything you want to say, do not waste the reader’s time.
2. Can I convey this information to the admissions committee another way?
One advantage of presenting information through a letter of recommendation, as opposed to writing it yourself, is that it is coming from someone else. There are two main instances when this is important: when testifying to your character and when describing a skill that cannot be easily quantified with numbers. When looking for good applicants, readers will attempt to discern whether the candidates’ personalities would be a good fit for the company or university. This might tempt you to write about how great of a leader you are or about how you always submit your work on time. However, in describing yourself in this way, you might come across as arrogant. This is where letters of recommendation come in. By having another person write about your strengths, the recommender is free to write as many good things about you as he/she would like.
The second advantage of presenting information through a letter of recommendation is that it allows you to add a qualitative assessment of your capabilities to your personal narrative. For example, a company might want to know about a candidate’s teamwork skills. Numbers alone do not tell the whole story (i.e. what if he delivers results, but yells at everyone in the process?). Through a letter of recommendation, you can have a team member or supervisor describe what it is like working with you. A supplemental letter of recommendation can fill these two gaps if the minimum number of letters are not enough.
3. Would this recommender be the best person to present this narrative?
This is an important question to ask yourself because applicants will often get so hung up on the title of the recommender that they do not stop to think whether that person will write a good letter. For example, your direct supervisor likely has more experience working with you than the CEO of the company. Therefore, ever though the CEO may be in a higher position, because he/she does not know you as well, he/she will not be able to include the same level of detail as your supervisor – thereby writing a worse letter of recommendation.
I see this problem come up for college students as well, where students will clamor to get into classes with all the most famous professors. While it can be fun to hear these lectures, it is unlikely that you will be able to form a significant relationship with this famous professor. If you are looking for a good letter of recommendation, it is more likely to come from the professor who taught your ten-person seminar class than your thousand-person lecture class. A supplemental letter of recommendation should only be included if the person truly knows you and can describe, in detail, exactly why the company or university should take you.