Last Updated: May 20, 2020
Director of Communications
Commonwealth School; Boston, MA
On the one hand, we strongly advocate differentiating yourself with your college application (which can be accomplished with a standout application essay). We’ve also discussed sending “nontraditional” applications, including video résumés. But on the other hand, we’re quick to remind students that they shouldn’t send supplemental items not specifically asked for on the application, like copies of awards received.
Though it may seem a little convoluted, I think that advice still stands. But I wanted to make it crystal clear for any soon-to-be applicants who might feel confused or overwhelmed by what they should or shouldn’t send—especially if they haven’t even looked at any college applications yet.
Long story short: don’t worry. Applications are quite specific when it comes to directions, including when it’s okay to send supplemental materials, where to include them on the application, and what those materials might be. As so often in life, all you really need to do is follow the directions and you’ll be okay.
It’s also a matter of common sense and not losing sight of what the college application is all about. Admission committees are trying to figure out if you’re a good fit for their institution—if the school is the right place for you to thrive. They want to get to know you, your personality, your academic strengths and goals, and what’s important to you. Supplemental application materials can definitely be a means to that end. For example, if you're a poet, it’s usually fine to include a few examples of your work. (An application essay written as a poem could be cool too!) Just don’t send a notebook full of sonnets.
Nontraditional applications like videos are gaining in popularity too. But that doesn’t mean you should send a week’s worth of video diaries; one to five minutes will suffice. Your school may even provide application video submission guidelines (like Tufts University!). And when it comes to performing and visual arts application supplements, you’ll be given specific instructions as to how many pieces and what kind of work to include in your portfolio, as well as how many and how long any taped performance examples should be (if you can’t audition in person).
That’s why it’s also important to be straightforward—but as detailed as possible—when describing your activities. Admission counselors almost always prefer a list of accomplishments over a stack of certificates.
And don’t underestimate the benefit of sharing your applications with someone you trust. You should always have someone edit your work, and a fresh set of eyes can uncover everything from little mistakes to big-picture issues (like if your application essay misses the point of the given prompt entirely).
Finally, we’ll never get tired of mentioning this, and it bears repeating: never be afraid to ask for help. Reach out to the admission counselors at the institutions you’re considering if you have any questions. And if you’re ever confused about the advice we’re doling out, don’t be afraid to ask us questions too!
Need more expert advice on applying to college? Visit our College Admission—Ask the Experts section!