The Ivy Coach Daily
July 18, 2023
The Impact of Influential Letters of Recommendation in College Admissions
Previously Published on September 4, 2017:
Curious about the impact of letters from influential people in the admissions process? Letters from former presidents, current presidents, royal family members, college trustees, CEOs of major corporations, and more can certainly be helpful in the highly selective college admissions process.
But they can also backfire big-time for applicants and lead to rejection and cackles in the admissions office, as we at Ivy Coach detailed in a piece for Town and Country on college letters of recommendation from famous people.
This trend is particularly the case after the 2019 Varsity Blues college admissions scandal and the 2023 outlawing of Affirmative Action, both events spurring growing anti-privilege sentiment in elite college admissions offices. As such, such letters from influential people must be deployed only in the appropriate situations, and the letter’s content matters too. Let’s dissect these letters for our readers and offer some anecdotes.
Letters of Recommendation from a President
Is Mom or Dad connected to former President George W. Bush? Maybe Grandpa donated money to one of his campaigns, and he’s confident he can get a letter from him to support his grandson’s case for admission to President Bush’s alma mater, Yale University.
But let’s be real. President Bush likely hasn’t spent much time with Grandpa’s youngest grandchild. So even if President Bush agreed to write such a letter, what could he possibly write? What insight could the former president offer into the student’s character, intellectual curiosity, and ambition to change the world? Likely not much.
So in the unlikely event that Grandpa can persuade President Bush to send such a letter, know that it will likely be perceived as a transparent attempt to impress admissions officers with the applicant’s connections. But it won’t impress them. It will — more than likely — simply render the applicant unlikable. Now, if President Bush really did have a strong relationship with a college applicant, then a letter from “43” would benefit the applicant.
Letters of Recommendation from a College Trustee
Maybe Mom thinks a college trustee will go to bat for her daughter because she briefly got to know the trustee at a business function. And maybe she thinks that any word of support from a college trustee can be helpful. Not so much.
College trustees often agree to write letters in support of college applicants whom they may know tangentially. But just because they agree to send these letters doesn’t mean they do send the letters. And just because they do send a letter doesn’t mean they’ve written anything in that letter that will boost a student’s chances of admission.
In fact, college trustees often have shorthands with admissions officers. Maybe they’ll insert a line like, “This is a bright young woman who will do wonderful things for our college community.” It seems innocuous, right? But maybe that same college trustee writes that line in every letter they feel pressured to send. Maybe they’ve told the Dean of Admissions that when they write that line, it means he doesn’t want to use his clout on this particular student and wants to save it for someone else — like a real family friend or relative.
Letters of Recommendation from a Faculty Member
If a faculty member is a family friend, that’s nice. Maybe you and your family can lunch with the faculty member to learn more about the college. It’s nice to have friends!
But the best letters of recommendation from faculty members come not when they support an applicant because they’re a family friend. Remember, there are quite a few faculty members at each institution. They can’t please everyone.
Instead, the letters of recommendation from members of the faculty that carry the most weight are when these professors are genuinely impressed by the student’s research. Maybe the student submitted a research paper to the professor that aligns with the professor’s work. And maybe the student has expressed a clear interest in working in their lab. Now that kind of connection with a faculty member would have much more weight than a family connection. That would show genuine interest not only in the discipline but also in the college.
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