The Impact of Letters from Influential People in the Admissions Process

Letters of Rec for College, College Letters of Recommendation, Influential Letters of Recommendation for College

Think a letter from a congressman who has never met your son will help his case for admission? Think again.

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 not only rejection but also cackles in the admissions office. Such letters must be deployed only in the appropriate situations and, yes, the content of the letters matters a whole lot too. Let’s dissect these letters for our readers and offer some anecdotes.

The Letter from the World Leader Who Has Never Met the Student

Is mom or dad connected to former President George H.W. Bush? Maybe grandpa donated money to one of his campaigns and he’s certain he can get a letter from him to support his grandson’s case for admission to President Bush’s alma mater, Yale. 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 grandpa is able to persuade President Bush to send such a letter, know that it will be perceived as a transparent attempt by admissions officers to impress them with the applicant’s family 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, if he really did know him well, then certainly a letter from “41” would benefit the applicant.

The Letter from the College Trustee

Maybe mom thinks that a college trustee will go to bat for her daughter because she got to know the trustee briefly 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 actually 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 offices. 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 specific line, it means he doesn’t want to use his clout on this particular student, that he wants to save it for someone else — like a real family friend, a relative, etc.

The Letter from the Faculty Member

If a member of the faculty is a family friend, that’s nice. Maybe you and your family can go to 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, the ones that carry the most weight, are not when they weigh in supporting an applicant because they’re a family friend. Remember, there are quite a few faculty members at a given institution. They can’t please everyone. Rather, 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 lines up quite nicely with the professor’s line of research. And maybe the student has expressed a clear interest in working in his or her lab. Now that kind of connection with a faculty member would have a whole lot more clout. That would show genuine interest not only in the discipline but also in the college!

While you’re here, learn more about impressive letters of recommendation for college. And what are your thoughts about the impact of letters from influential people in the admissions process? Let us know your questions, thoughts, and musings by posting a Comment below. We look forward to hearing from you.


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