How to Handle Supplementary Recommendations

Question: My daughter has asked a teacher from a special program she participated in outside of school to write a letter of recommendation for her. He is not a high school academic teacher so she would just use his recommendation as an extra but important letter. We were thinking it might be easiest for him to give us several copies of his letter, which her guidance counselor can then include with her transcripts. However, the advice I’ve seen suggests giving the reference writer stamped envelopes. Is it considered wrong to ask for a letter that you would be able to view? What do you think is the best approach?

Supplementary recommendations need not be confidential, so in these situations, I typically tell my advisees to give their recommender a self-addressed, stamped envelope. In other words, the letter of reference will go back to the student and not directly to the college. If your daughter does this, then she (and you?) can review the letter first to make sure it’s worth sending. Depending on where your daughter is applying, she may find that a polite endorsement with a string of predictable, albeit complimentary, adjectives (“responsible,” “hard-working,” “dedicated”) is better stuffed in a drawer than put in the mail. At the most selective schools, unsolicited references that don’t make the candidate stand out in a crowd could do more harm than good. In some cases, applicants request supplementary recommendations from two or three individuals and then review them all, sending only the best one or two–or sometimes none at all.

Since your daughter’s recommender will see that the letter is going back to her, and because colleges do not expect such extra letters to be confidential, there is nothing unethical about taking this approach. You may find that this teacher tells your daughter that he is more comfortable writing a reference that she will not be able to read, but it’s unlikely. He may, in fact, be delighted to say nice things about your daughter knowing full well that she’ll soon know what they are. Let’s hope so!