Will Getting a Letter from an Alumnus, Famous Person, or Government Official Boost my Chances?
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If you know someone with special standing or status, it might be tempting to ask them for an additional letter of recommendation to add to your application. Taken at face value, getting a letter of recommendation from someone like an alumnus, famous person, or government official may seem like an easy way to add credibility and boost your chances of being admitted. However, you have to think carefully before soliciting a letter of recommendation from this sort of figure, because letters of recommendations are about you – who you are, and how that has affected someone else – and not about your recommender, regardless of whether or not they’re famous or an alumnus.
What’s Wrong with Asking Someone Famous to Write my Letter?
The general rule of thumb is that if the person does not know you well, they will not be able to write you a good letter. If you choose to get a letter from a person of status whom you don’t know well, It will be clear to admissions committees that this person does not know you well that you asked this person only because of their status. To put it differently, the relationship you have with the recommender is always more important than who the recommender is.
Furthermore, you should not get a letter from someone who cannot add anything to your application that no one else can. The purpose of the letter of recommendation is to flesh you out as a person and speak to your talents. So, you want to make sure your recommenders are chosen to paint a picture of you in many colors. For example, if your other recommenders will speak to your work ethic, and the individual with standing only has limited exposure to you in a work-related setting, it is unlikely they can bring a unique, personal perspective.
Additionally, in general, colleges do not care much about the average alumnus in the admissions process. Alumni only gain a special status if they have made significant contributions – either academic or monetary – to a specific department (which would only matter if it was the department you are applying to) or to the school at large. Even if they have made a notable contribution and have a special status, the above considerations still apply. Only ask the person in question for an additional letter if they have worked with you closely and you believe they could speak about you in a detailed and personalized way.
Also, if you have worked very closely with someone in your field (meaning a famous professor, researcher, government official, etc.) and they can write a supplementary letter, you should strongly consider asking them. Keep in mind, though, that they have to know enough about your specific contributions to say something meaningful that is not otherwise represented in your application. Not only would the letter be less powerful if the recommender could not speak to your specific accomplishments, but it would also call into question how much you actually contributed if an individual you worked closely with is unable to recall specific details. You want to pick people who can speak in detail about your talents and accomplishments.
Remember: the relationship you have with the recommender is always more important than who the recommender is.
So, What Should I Do?
First, consider if you need an additional letter of recommendation. Admissions committees read a lot of applications every day, so it is important to include only what is important and can make a substantial difference in your application. An impersonal or disinterested letter of recommendation that has been included only because of the recommender’s status is neither important nor will it make any meaningful difference in the information presented in your application.
Instead, you should only ask for additional letters of recommendation if you think they are crucial for an admissions committee to see and understand you as a person. If that extra recommender happens to be famous, a distinguished alumnus, or a government official, fine. If that extra recommender is none of these, that is also fine. Ultimately, the letter is about you and how others see your effect on the world. Your recommender’s standing should be of no consideration. Who is the applicant? Who will be taking the classes? You and you alone.
Let your accomplishments speak for themselves and only ask for additional letters of recommendation if they will help flesh out your accomplishments. Colleges do not want you for the status of your recommender – they want you for you.
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