Will a Letter of Recommendation From a Famous Person Help You Get into a Top School?
“The thicker the application file, the thicker the student.”
Earlier this month, the Washington Post reported that in 2014 Tucker and Susie Carlson allegedly asked their then-neighbor Hunter Biden to write a letter of recommendation for their son, who was applying to Georgetown. (The newspaper claimed it had recovered the request during a forensic examination of Biden’s infamous laptop hard drive.) Tucker Carlson, who is the host of the Fox News show, “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” confirmed to the Post that he had been friendly with Biden but said, “I can’t confirm these emails.”
Political observers were quick to question the propriety of an avowed conservative asking the son of a Democratic Vice President for a personal favor. Some pointed out that Carlson routinely criticizes both Joe and Hunter Biden on his show.
All fair game. But there’s another question to ask: Was it even a good idea? In the past, the answer would have been yes. For as long as there have been exclusive colleges with murky admissions criteria, parents of applicants have looked for ways to give their children an edge. A generation or so ago, a letter from a well-placed alumni, CEO, politician, or celebrity signaled to an admissions staff that the family had an appealing and perhaps useful connection to power. (By the way, Carlson’s son ended up going to UVA.)
Today, according to Brian Taylor, a managing partner at the college admissions counseling service Ivy Coach, it can have a different effect. “At most highly selective schools, when you submit a letter of recommendation from a famous person—unless you worked for that famous person as, say, an intern—schools see it for what it is. They see that you’re trying to game the system and it makes you unlikeable,” he said.
The likeability of the children of wealthy parents, especially lever-pulling wealthy parents, is a fraught subject right now. The 2019 Varsity Blues admissions bribery scandal showed how far some rich parents will go to give their children an unfair advantage. Recent court cases have illuminated how even the most competitive schools, including Harvard, give special consideration to students whose parents make major donations. As Nicole LaPorte described in “This Year’s College Admissions Horror Show,” an article in the April issue of Town & Country, parents with kids at elite high schools have become increasingly worried that all the bad publicity means their children now face a backlash.
According to Taylor, admissions officers are on the lookout for signs of entitlement, though he thinks that their aversion to letters from famous people preceded Varsity Blues. “A big reason why some students don’t earn admission to highly selective schools is because they brag or they flaunt their wealth. They might even do it subtly: Maybe they write about travel in their essays. Maybe they submit a letter of recommendation from a very important person thinking that’s going to sway admissions officers, but it won’t.”
Taylor’s prescription to avoid the famous-person endorsement is echoed by other college prep services as well as admissions officers. IvyWise warns students on its website “Having someone write on your behalf just because they are ‘cool’ or impressive doesn’t boost your application; it can actually hurt it.” And high school counselors routinely reference a 2017 New York Times op-ed written by a former Dartmouth admissions director who was impressed not by a letter from a celebrity but one by a janitor. “And, as I learned from that custodian, a sincere character evaluation from someone unexpected will mean more to us than any boilerplate recommendation from a former president or famous golfer.”
Some schools, like the University of California Los Angeles, do not solicit or accept letters of recommendation. In a recent article in Inside Higher Education, Youlonda Copeland-Morgan, vice provost for enrollment management at UCLA, described how many non-affluent students have difficulty simply obtaining recommendations from their own advisors, let alone a famous person. “The caseload for most public school counselors is incredibly heavy. Despite their desire to support their senior students, they have many responsibilities.”
Most colleges specify what type and how many recommendations they want. Typically, says Taylor, it will be a couple of teachers and a high school counselor. If that’s the case, “students should ask in May of their junior year and they should approach teachers in core subjects—that’s English history, math, science, or foreign language,” he says.
Taylor believes that good recommendations are even more important now that many schools no longer require SAT or ACT scores. To that end, “You also don’t want to just ask for letters of recommendation. You want to help your teachers write those letters by reminding them about significant moments you’ve had in their class. Remind them about a project you worked on or a comment you made that changed the course of a conversation—anything that hopefully shows your intellectual curiosity.”
Does that mean you should never include additional letters? Of course not, said Taylor. “But keep in mind that old expression used in admissions circles: “The thicker the application file, the thicker the student.”