Colleges typically require academic recommendations, which are recommendations from your teachers in high school, and some don't let you submit any others. But other colleges also give you the opportunity to submit "other" (non-academic) recommendations from people who aren't your teachers. Examples of non-academic recommenders include mock trial coach, rabbi, or mentor.
When is it a good idea to submit those?
Our cardinal rule: Submit a non-required recommendation only if it truly adds something meaningful to your profile.
Here are four categories of "other" (non-academic) recommendations that can add something meaningful to your profile:
1. It discusses one of your non-cognitive attributes. For example, your leadership can be validated by the coach of a team where you were Captain, or by a Student Council sponsor when you were a Student Council officer.
Many colleges have started caring more about non-cognitive attributes (like leadership and resilience), in addition to the usual cognitive ones (like reasoning skills and subject matter expertise). Many applicants and their families aren't used to thinking in those terms for their college applications, so at the end of this post we've included a longer list of examples for each.
2. It validates or explains a part of your story that would benefit from the perspective of an outside party. For example, a mentor can describe obstacles you have overcome on your path to achievement, or your employer can vouch for the long shifts you've worked to help support your family.
3. It documents a bona fide talent through a reputable source, for example a flute teacher who writes a letter for an applicant to the New England Conservatory.
4. It underscores your religious affiliation for a college where religious affiliation counts, for example a letter from a minister, priest, rabbi, or imam.
In each of those four cases, the recommender should make clear in the letter what the purpose of the letter is.
An "other" (non-academic) recommendation is not the best way to solicit "good words" from alums, donors, or famous people. If they really know you (well) and care about you (a lot) and have a strong connection to the powers-that-be at the college, they can just pick up the phone or send an email to the powers-that-be behind the curtain. Don't use one of the "other" recommendations for that.
And when are "other" recommendations a waste of time? When the only purpose they serve is basically to say that the applicant is a great kid.
EXAMPLES OF COGNITIVE ABILITIES/SKILLS/ATTRIBUTES
Knowledge: Has a basic set of facts and methods at his/her command; mastery of the “college prep” curriculum.
Subject Matter Expertise: Has acquired knowledge of specific subject matter both inside and outside classroom. Knowledge can be in any area, including social, personal, or interpersonal.
Application of Knowledge/Expertise/Problem Solving: Can apply what he/she knows in new or novel situations; develops solutions to problems using knowledge.
Analysis: Can examine and break information into parts, identify motives or causes, make inferences, find evidence to support generalizations.
Evaluation/Critical Thinking: Can make clear, reasoned judgments, can present and defend opinions by making judgments about information, can assess the validity of ideas or quality of work based on a set of criteria.
Synthesis/Creative Thinking: Can build a structure or pattern from diverse elements, put parts to together to form a new whole, compile information in a different way, create something novel or new, develop alternative or innovative solutions.
EXAMPLES OF NON-COGNITIVE ABILITIES/SKILLS/ATTRIBUTES
Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Grit is the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals.
Self-Control: Self-control is the voluntary regulation of impulses in the presence of momentarily gratifying temptations. Able to defer gratification; plan ahead and sets goals.
Growth Mindset: The belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts.
Positive Self-Concept: Demonstrates confidence, strength of character, determination, and independence.
Realistic Self-Appraisal: Recognizes and accepts any strengths and deficiencies, especially academic, and works hard at self-development. Recognizes need to broaden individuality.
Successful Leadership Experience: Demonstrates strong leadership in any area: church, sports, non-educational groups, etc. Leadership involves having initiative, building consensus, innovating new strategies, and implementing policies and programs in collaboration with or under the direction of others.
Collaboration: Communication plus additional competencies related to conflict resolution, decision making, problem solving, and negotiation.
Demonstrated Community Service: Identifies with a community, is involved in community work.
Openness, Tolerance, Agreeableness, Warmth/Consideration, Generosity, Cooperation/Trust, Openness: The ability to take the perspective of others, particularly from different backgrounds and cultures.
Understands and Knows How to Handle the System: Exhibits a realistic view of the system based upon personal experiences and is committed to improving the existing system. Takes an assertive approach to dealing with existing wrongs, but is not hostile to society nor is a “cop- out.” Involves handling any “isms” (racism, sexism, etc.).
Availability of Strong Support Person: Seeks out and takes advantage of a strong support network or has someone to turn to in a crisis or for encouragement. Doesn't try to "muscle through" life's challenges alone.