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How Important are “Other Recommendations” for College Admission?

Much about college admission is simply common sense. For example, it just makes sense that great teacher and counselor recommendations, great grades, and great test scores are important pieces of the admission puzzle. Other factors such as honors, activities, and "other recommenders" are less obvious.

Up to five of a student's academic honors can be listed under "Honors" in the education section of the common application. These can include school level honors such as: honor roll, valedictorian or Dean's list. They can include regional level owners such as: city spelling bee champion, or County science fair finalist. They can also include state-level, national level, and international level honors. An example of a state-level honor is “The Georgia Governor’s Award.” An example of a national honor is AP Scholar with Distinction. An example of an international honor is IMO (International Math Olympiad) Semifinalist.

As for activities, the Common Application allows you to enter up to 10. Which activities you enter, in which order, and how you summarize them will be discussed in a subsequent article. However, please understand that this is one of the most important and least understood sections of the common application.

Some colleges do not offer you the opportunity to enlist individuals other than two teachers and a counselor to write recommendations. However, many of the elite colleges not only provide you with the opportunity to have others write about you, but also expect that these additional recommendations will reveal some characteristic that does not come across in the teacher or counselor recommendations, or that provides proof of passion, level of expertise, or objective analysis of your ability in a particular area or field.

“Other Recommenders” could include coaches, coworkers, co-captains, mentors, business professionals, internship leaders, doctors, work supervisors, skills teachers (an art teacher or music teacher, for example) or anyone else who can provide insightful information about you that might be useful to colleges. The rules for other recommenders are not precise. Suffice to say that anyone who knows you well enough to write a recommendation is a potential recommender.

Keep in mind that colleges that allow you to submit an additional recommendation have no interest in wasting their time reading recommendations that do not provide additional or insightful information about you. Therefore, you should choose your recommender wisely, and provide him/her when information is relevant to the college. For example, a recommendation from an art teacher could focus on a specific artistic talent and then discuss how that talent might be nurtured in college. Or, a recommendation could discuss your work ethic, your progress over time, your leadership qualities, or virtually anything else that provides useful and insightful information the colleges will find valuable.

Among the things that colleges find distasteful are recommendations that merely repeat what other recommendations have said, and therefore have no intrinsic value. For example, it is unwise to have a private math tutor write about how well you have done in school. On the contrary, it would be valuable to have a private math tutor write about how you have gone on to study the seven Millennial Prize math problems, or the relationship and application of mathematics to science, industry, economics, or finance. A recommendation from a work supervisor would naturally speak about your reliability, your excellent attitude, your responsibility, your willingness to take on additional tasks, and perhaps your situation at home in order to explain why you are working in the first place. You should urge your recommender to write something that will move the needle, as opposed to something that will not help your cause. You can remind your recommender of specific instances or anecdotes that he/she could include.

The inclusion of other recommenders on the common application, and school specific applications, gives you an opportunity to provide more information that colleges will find useful in analyzing your application. It is best not to squander that opportunity, but rather to take full advantage of it. Choose your recommenders wisely, and coach them in what to say. This is far different from telling them what to say, and most recommenders will appreciate your providing then with the kind of information that only you can provide—the kind of information that colleges will find ultimately find most useful.