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• 06/30/2020 at 12:11AM

Would this be an appropriate situation for an optional/non-academic rec letter?

So several of the schools I'm applying to have their required/recommended teacher & counselor recommendation letters, but many also have an optional non-academic rec letter. I've heard that using these without a good reason to annoys admissions officers, so I thought I would ask here for an opinion on whether or not I should use a rec letter from this person.

The EC that is most important to me is an anti-hate club that I was a founding member of in my school. I'm applying for engineering, so it's not AT ALL relevant to my major, but it was really impactful in my life. We're the only group like this in our state, but working to expand the model to other schools and even businesses. The mentor who has gotten us through this process (and the cofounder of the organization as a whole, not our chapter) is a fairly well-known speaker in the US, and potentially also abroad, with strong ties to activism. I've taken on a leadership role in my school's chapter, as well as founding a community alliance around racial justice outside of school and organizing a 600-person rally this summer, and I've worked fairly closely with him as a mentor.

I would like to ask him for a letter of rec because he's seen me grow from freshman year just being a founding member with no experience to organizing a big (for our town) rally this year, but I'm nervous for a few reasons. Here are the pros and cons as I see them:


-He has known me for more years than most (any?) of my teacher recommenders

-He has seen me take leadership roles and hold my own in a room of adults

-I have a rather unique role, as I am helping him draft the model for businesses forming anti-discrimination practices like ours

-He's a good speaker and kind person, so would probably write a nice rec letter

-I really did love being a part of this organization and spent 100s of hours on it, many of which are not reflected elsewhere in much detail in my application


-This has nothing to do with my major and I'm afraid it will make my application look scattered

-I'm worried it might look tacky to have someone well-known write me a letter of rec, like I'm trying to gain credibility through his credibility

-I'm nervous overall about submitting optional rec letters and wasting people's time

-My other rec letters will probably talk a lot about my academics/research, so I'm afraid this will look random and take away from the rest of my application

I know this is really overthinking it but if anyone has opinions about what I should do, or whether it would be good to submit to some schools and not others, I would love some help because rec letter etiquette in general is super confusing to me.

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3 answers

• 06/30/2020 at 02:30AM

So non academic rec letters attest to your character (patience through creative leadership etc) so don’t worry at all about you major.

To address the cons

If you are family friends with a senator and you intern for him that’s still okay for a rec letter so a well known speaker is fine just don’t focus on it.

If a school says that a rec is optional that means it is evaluated as they want character insight not just academic insight so it is not a waste of time.

Don’t submit more than 4 rec letters total one teacher one counselor one community and then likely another community or teacher but that’s totally optional too many and it is over the top.

Hope this helps and comment if you need clarification

• 06/30/2020 at 07:49PM

Hey @AllyG!

I think sending the optional recommendation totally makes sense in your case! Since this aspect of your life/development isn't covered deeply in other parts of your application or teacher rec letters, I think it the different perspective from your mentor will add a lot of great extra context for an admissions officer. So it's definitely OK that it isn't related to your major. There's more to who you are as a person than just your intended major, so this is a great use for your optional rec letter. Especially since this mentor will be able to speak toward accomplishments you've had that perhaps your teachers and counselors wouldn't be able to.

I hear and understand some of the fears that you mentioned in your "cons" section, but I honestly don't think you need to worry about those! Especially the point about credibility -- if your mentor can write a genuine, honest, personalized letter about your growth and accomplishments, that's SO different than a well-known person writing a generic letter for someone they barely know. It also sounds like your profile will speak for itself in terms of credibility.

Good luck and keep up the awesome work in your club and making a huge and important impact in your community!

• 06/30/2020 at 07:34PM

I say yes, you should ask for his LOR even though it isn’t related to STEM. A good LOR should be, like your essays, focused on YOU and how you are a qualified candidate that your top school would WANT to have. Your LOR shouldn’t be “they have great work ethic, are smart, are good at Science (pretend you’re going into STEM), are a class leader...” since it’s super generic. Your LOR also shouldn’t be 100% focused on how good you are at a particular activity related to your major or why you’re a REALLY GOOD scientist since you’re really being recruited more for your stats/personality than your ability to conduct research. You want a LOR that will help the colleges get a better picture of YOU, your personal values, etc. IMO he is the person who (other than your guidance counselor) will be able to attest to all of the qualities colleges look for- leadership, dedication and commitment, initiative, and community engagement. I am so proud of you for starting your own Anti-Hate club/group, that is AWESOME and I wish my school would let me do that haha. Go for it!