The other day, I was filling out my application to a program (which I hope to get into but I don’t want to jinx it just yet talking about until I’ve gotten in – cross your fingers for me!) and part of it included sending in two letters of recommendation. I immediately thought of two perfect people to write me the letter and I thought nothing of it. My mother came by my desk and looked at my filled-out application and said, “So how many letters of recommendation are you sending?”

The question surprised me a bit. The instructions send to only send in two letters of recommendation – so that was what I was supposed to do, right?

“But what if you’re expected to send them at least two letters? What if everyone else is going to send in five and you only send in two?”

The whole concept flabberghasted me for two reasons: first, I am a single-minded order-follower. If my list of necessary materials says to bring two number-two pencils, an extra eraser, and an analog watch, I will bring all of these things and nothing else. If a recipe says to use two cups of water and half a cup of milk, I bring out the measuring cup. The idea that my list of necessary materials could somehow be tricking me – telling me to submit two letters of recommendation when there is some unspoken agreement for “knowledgable” applicants to submit five – I could not wrap my mind around it.

So I called the program and found out that yes, they really did mean two letters, not because they wouldn’t be interested in reading more of them but because they didn’t have the time to read more than two. When I hung up the phone and wrote in my notebook, “Exactly two letters,” I thought about the whole experience.

In school, I was always the type to over-deliver. It’s not that I would submit 12 pages for a 2-page essay. Rather, I would make sure that the content of my work was always at a much higher caliber than I knew the teacher was expecting. I made certain that if a project allowed for extra credit (say by using an extra play in an essay or submitting extra notes for credit), I did so. But I wasn’t the type of person to go to a teacher and ASK for extra credit. I waited until it was offered and then worked from there.

Now that I’m not in school anymore, and I’ve had a brush with working at a job, I’ve found that this sit-back-and-wait-for-it attitude just doesn’t work anymore. I’ve had to learn to organize and ask for what is expected of me. And I’ve learned something else that’s interesting: whether you give in mediocre work or stellar work is completely up to you. Yes, you may be in a company that has very high expectations of you, but it is really the work that you decide to turn in that determines what kind of worker you are. High quality work tends to be a conscious effort.

All of this round-about thinking fueled my thoughts about over-delivering. Did it make sense to send more than two letters of recommendation to the program? Would it make sense to extend my personal statement from two pages to twenty? Hey, I write novels. Writing 10k words is like brushing my teeth in the morning. So should I? If it doesn’t take THAT much more effort, should I?

The answer is: it depends. I think mostly it depends on timing. For example, this awesome program I’m applying to, has a lot in it that leaves room for “extra credit” so to speak. Once I am in, I can shine with my hard work. Right now though, in applying, part of the point is to follow directions. Sending in exactly what they ask for makes their lives easier. At the same time, that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t put in effort. I can astound them with the quality of my personal statement, for example, without having to extend it to twenty pages. I can make sure that those two letters of recommendation are amazing and highlight the best qualities I can offer. And once I’m in, then I can go ahead and push until I’ve shown them how hard I can work.

I was thinking about this for query letters too. The biggest problem I had when I first tried to write query letters is I was deeply self conscious and worried that I wouldn’t put enough information in it. I felt like I had to give it all in just one page and that is impossible to do. What I realized I needed to do was answer the question: what is my book about, how can I market it effectively, and how clear can I be in a short amount of space? When I read query letters online on various blogs, the biggest problem I’ve seen agents and editors (and even writers) note constantly is the lack of clarity. You’re not completely sure what the book is about once you’ve finished reading it.

So what have I learned:

1) It’s all about timing. You don’t have to overwhelm people right out of the gate – you’ll get your chance to go in depth and explain things. But before you do, giving an overview or summary can at least catch people’s attention.

2) Have a clear focus. It’s easy to go in a hundred directions, adding all the “good stuff” that you can think of. I’ve attended nearly a dozen marketing events that make me a competitive applicant. If I were to spend my entire personal statement describing every single experience, I’d have a novel and I’d get a nice, solid rejection. Part of the exercise of a personal statement is brevity: why do you want to be in the program and why should we pick you. Same with a query letter: what are you offering and why should we pick you.

3) Relax. Part of the problem sometimes is nerves. You’re so anxious to prove yourself you end up going on a tangent, like people who can’t stop talking about themselves in social gatherings because they’re so nervous. I’ve done this a hundred times and it just leaves you feeling drained. Take a step back, breathe deep, and look at what you need to do. Once you’re part of the conversation, it’s easy to bring up other interesting topics but get your foot in the door first.