Thinking about dropping by the favorite coffee shop of the dean of admissions at your top-choice college? Draped in a sandwich board — noting the 10 reasons why she should admit you to the incoming class? Please don’t.
Admissions gimmicks rarely, if ever, work.
Given the selectivity of many U.S. colleges today, it’s no surprise that some students feel the need to go above and beyond what is asked of them when applying. And yes, there are indeed applicants who go to extraordinary measures to try to make themselves stand out in the college admissions process.
The types of additions that admissions officers see will vary depending on the student. For some applicants, it may mean submitting an abundance of extra recommendations letters — from employers, teachers, volunteer coordinators, camp supervisors, peers, even parents. In other cases, applicants decide to send bulging portfolios that showcase the awards they’ve received or their academic and extracurricular accomplishments.
And those “wacky,” extravagant ideas — telegrams, essays dropped by carrier pigeon, and handmade college-themed piñatas? These are a big, fat no. Not only do admissions officers dislike these submissions, they also don’t have the space to store them! Sadly, in most cases, these precious and time-consuming projects end up in our round filing cabinets — commonly known as the garbage can.
In the worst cases, applicants will go so far as to turn up on campus with a creation that they believe shows their love for the school and their fervent desire to attend. Can you say stalker? This never goes over well with admissions officers.
So, do these sorts of submissions usually work? As a former admissions officer at a number of colleges, I have to say that neither I nor my colleagues were impressed.
It is almost always better to provide just what is asked of you and to move forward confidently. Admissions officers are exceedingly busy, reading anywhere from 500–2000 applications during an application season. And while we want student submissions to be compelling and authentic representations of each applicant, we don’t want to be inundated with extraneous material that makes it all the more difficult to evaluate the components we’ve requested.
Moreover, when students feel the need to send more than two extra letters of recommendation or some wacky, outside-the-box addition, admissions officers wonder if these applicants may be trying to overcompensate for a perceived weakness in their application. This is likewise true if a student submits newspaper clippings, creative pieces that are not part of a formal arts supplement, links to a personal website, or YouTube videos of a performance in a local theater production. Of course, these achievements are great (and they may be suitable for, say, an application to a drama program), but if schools really wanted these materials from everyone, they would ask for them specifically — and most do not.
Many schools do allow applicants to submit one extra teacher recommendation, and often, one or more letters from a coach, peer, or employer. And yes, even a parent letter of support will be accepted at some schools (though many admissions professionals, including myself, are on the fence about whether these letters serve an applicant’s interests). Regardless of the number of letters permitted by the schools on a client’s list, I almost always suggest capping it at two additional letters — sometimes, less is more.
The materials that colleges ask for on applications are designed to give admissions officers a full and balanced picture of the achievements of applicants. While many students are tempted to add more and more to their applications in an attempt to distinguish themselves from the competition, they can still make their case for acceptance by sticking to what’s asked for and making this set of materials as strong as possible. And interrupting the dean’s coffee break? Don’t do it — she needs the breather.