Chances are, if you’re a student applying to college, you’re fully aware of how stiff the competition can be, especially at top schools. With admissions rates dropping every year, most students are eagerly searching for some way to set themselves apart from their peers. One way in which some students hope to get an edge is through letters of recommendation. Most schools require two letters from teachers and one letter from a counselor, but allow students to submit additional letters if they wish. But does an extra letter always mean an extra edge? Read on to find out.

The purpose of letters of recommendation are to offer admissions committees unique perspectives on who you are as a person and a student that aren’t expressed elsewhere in your application. For this reason, many students select two teachers in different subjects as recommenders to present as complete a picture as possible. However, some students go beyond the typical two teacher/one counselor limit and submit three, four, or even five letters of recommendation. These can come from teachers, employers, supervisors, and more.

Students who submit extra letters of recommendation usually do so because they believe that the more people they half speaking on their behalf, the more impressive they’ll seem – after all, three voices heaping praise and adoration on a student are better than two, right?

Contrary to what you might think, extra letters do not always give students an extra advantage. Keep in mind that admissions officers have to sift through tens of thousands of applications a year, each including grades, test scores, lengthy lists of extracurriculars, at least one personal essay, and the minimum required three letters of recommendation. That’s already an enormous amount of paperwork and information to consider; especially given how thorough top colleges already are in their essay questions, an additional letter of recommendation seems almost like overkill.

Though most of us tend to picture adcoms as machines that suck up applications and spit out decisions, it’s important to remember that there are actually groups of people who are responsible for carefully evaluating each and every aspect of each and every application. Like most humans, they are likely to be less objective in their decision if the applicant in question has included 3 extra letters that they’re now obligated to take into consideration on top of everything else.

Not only does including extra letters make admissions committees’ lives harder, the appearance of “trying too hard” can leave a sour taste in some admissions officers’ mouths. Including one or multiple extra letters can give the impression that you’re trying to compensate for a weakness elsewhere in your application, or just doing whatever you can to get an edge over other applicants, and neither perspective is especially flattering.

The above holds true if you seek a recommendation from another teacher, a figure you’re not very close with, or a subjective source like a family member, as these sources don’t provide a unique, subjective, and/or honest depiction of your character and skills to adcoms. However, there are some cases in which submitting an extra letter of recommendation is actually a smart move. If you have an adult figure in your life with whom you’ve worked extensively in a professional, academic, or extracurricular context (i.e. a professor with whom you’ve conducted research or a supervisor for a major volunteer project you completed), these figures have intimate knowledge of who you are and where your strengths lie, and adcoms will value the additional perspective they can offer.

A good rule of thumb when deciding whether or not to submit an additional letter is whether an additional letter could offer an opinion on you or showcase an accomplishment of yours that differs significantly from what’s been expressed in your other letters. For example, if you’ve worked closely with a teacher in a service-oriented club and they already have knowledge of your commitment to helping others, an additional letter from a leader at a community service organization you volunteer at probably won’t have anything to add that greatly enhances what’s already been said.

It’s also important to note that policies on additional letters of recommendation vary from school to school. There are some schools that welcome multiple letters from varied sources, while others are more selective about the sort of letters students may submit. For example, Yale’s policy on additional letters of recommendation is as follows:

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.”

The language of this policy clearly suggests that students should carefully evaluate the degree to which an additional letter of recommendation would add to their application, and that adding an extra recommender just for its own sake is discouraged.

If you’re considering soliciting an additional recommender for your college application, always be sure to check your college of choice’s website first to ensure that they allow supplementary letters. Rather than carelessly tacking on letters in a blind attempt to maximize your chances at admission, think critically about what an extra letter can add to your application and whether the perspective it could add is truly indispensable. We at Admissions Hero recommend against ever sending more than one additional letter of recommendation, for a total of 4 recommendations (one counselor, two teachers, and one additional letter), but if you’re confident that one additional letter would make a substantial positive contribution to your application, go for it!

Anamaria Lopez

Anamaria Lopez

Managing Editor at CollegeVine Blog
Anamaria is an Economics major at Columbia University who's passionate about sharing her knowledge of admissions with students facing the applications process. When she's not writing for the CollegeVine blog, she's studying Russian literature and testing the limits of how much coffee one single person can consume in a day.
Anamaria Lopez