Close-up of a womanʼs hand holding a pencil, writing in a notepad.

NYU requires first-year applicants to submit two letters of recommendation. One must be from a school counselor. The second must be from a teacher who has taught you. Earlier this year, I wrote a piece called Recommendations for Your Letters of Recommendation. That article assists applicants with choosing their recommenders. Here, we address the question, “Should I submit a third letter of recommendation, even if it is optional?”

The counselor letter provides insight to a student’s college-preparedness and general character exhibited in high school. The teacher letter speaks to a student’s ability in the classroom and level of participation. Both are helpful in our evaluation process. Similarly, both provide information about the applicant that we might otherwise not know. For NYU, a third letter can be submitted if the student feels that this recommendation will provide context that the first two do not.

Quality, not quantity.

Students should not submit a third letter for the sake of having another recommendation on file. Therefore, we want quality, not quantity. This is a good lesson for the entire application, not only the recommendations. Think about why you would want a third person to write you a letter. If it is only to max out the number of possible letters for NYU, then I advise against it. However, if you think a third recommender will prove new, useful information for the Office of Undergraduate Admissions, that is a solid reason to pursue the optional, third letter.

More than three letters of recommendation is certainly not necessary. You can select a third person who may tell us about your work ethic at your part-time job. Perhaps your pastor can speak to the way you care for those in your religious community. Maybe your travel basketball coach can articulate your leadership skills on and off the court. Think about the quality that you want to come across when NYU is reading about you. Choose someone who you know sees something special in you. If all three recommenders speak about your positive attitude, that is great, but we can gather that from two letters. Try choosing someone who knows you in a different light, and can speak to your abilities in that way.

Extracurricular or another teacher?

The third letter of recommendation can be from anybody. Well, maybe not anybody. While parents probably know their children best, I would advise steering clear of asking Mom or Dad for recommendations. You can imagine there is usually some inherent bias there. That still leaves the question, “Who?”

You can select another teacher as your third recommender. Two teachers may have two very different things to say about the same student. Hopefully, both are good things. You may participate more in Calculus and less in History. Your English teacher may know how hard you work in their class. Perhaps you struggle in Physics, but your teacher knows you are trying harder in their class than any other class. If you choose a second teacher, choose one that knows you and knows your work. There is no advantage to choosing a teacher or a recommender outside of school.

It was previously mentioned that bosses, pastors, or coaches can write you that third recommendation. Students bring more than their academic ability to NYU. Students bring their whole selves. An extracurricular recommendation can show us who you are from a very different perspective. Again, try to ensure that this recommender will convey quality. Choose someone who will not only list accomplishments like a resume, but inform us about who you are as a person.

Choosing not to submit an optional, third letter.

We are not bluffing. The third recommendation really is optional. In full transparency, the third letter of recommendation can rarely hurt a student. The student chooses who writes their letters, and should select those who will write about them in a good light.

Will providing only two letters be a disadvantage? Absolutely not. Admissions counselors want quality over quantity. If you know your counselor and teacher will cover who you are as a student and person, feel confident than that is sufficient. We also read applicants’ college essay, Why NYU statement, and activities list. These allow us to contextualize your application. The recommendations are only one part of the greater application a student submits. We learn a lot about an applicant through the prompts and questions we ask. The letters of recommendation help. However, they are not the be-all and end-all.

The choice is yours. The stakes are low. The third letter of recommendation is indeed optional.

Joe Savino is an Assistant Director of Undergraduate Admissions at NYU. A native New Yorker, born and raised in the Bronx, Joe loves getting out of the city and traveling to new places. He recruits prospective NYU students far away from home in the states of Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington, as well as Pakistan. Joe is also a graduate student in NYU Steinhardt studying Higher Education & Student Affairs. If he’s not reading applications or writing a paper, Joe is planning his next trip to a US National Park in hopes of visiting all 61 throughout the country.