Preparing for College

Do College Recommendations from VIPs Carry Clout?

Question: Do letters of recommendation sent to a college's president or dean of admissions from senators, congressmen, etc. boost one's chances of acceptance?

There's an old saying in admission offices that goes like this: "The thicker the folder, the thicker the kid." In other words, admission officials--especially at the most competitive colleges--are accustomed to seeing candidates who drum up support from wherever they think it might help, and application folders become weighty with unsolicited letters of recommendation. So do these letters actually help ... or can they possibly even hurt?

This may sound like a cop-out answer, but, really, it depends. For starters, it depends on just how important your VIP supporter is and how adamantly he or she seems to be backing your cause. Often public officials and other dignitaries write polite letters of endorsement in favor of the child of a family friend who is seeking college admission. But if the VIP isn't actively pushing the candidate's admission (e.g, via follow-up phone calls), then it's unlikely that the letter will do much good. Moreover, often in these cases, the VIP doesn't know the student involved very well .. or perhaps not at all. Admission officials are rarely swayed by letters that make claims like, "He comes from a wonderful family," or "I hear he's a fine young man, though I haven't seen him since he was 4." In addition, unless the VIP has some significant relationship with the college involved, most admission officers aren't going to be terribly impressed.

There are, of course, some situations where dignitaries advocate hard for a particular candidate, and that advocacy might turn out to be the "tip factor" that turns a "maybe" verdict into a "yes." Depending on where the clout is coming from and how heavy-handed it is, admission committees do sometimes acquiesce to such outside influence. But, conversely, I've seen admission officials roll their eyes when reading a letter of support that comes from someone who doesn't know the applicant and who seems to feel that his or her snazzy title alone will nonetheless carry a lot of weight. Such letters can even prejudice the admission commission AGAINST a candidate, although perhaps just subtly and subconsciously. In general, colleges tend to be more willing to take risks on applicants who are the offspring of VIPs and celebs rather than on those who are simply endorsed by them.

If, on the other hand, a senator, congressman, etc. does know you very well, especially in a "professional" capacity (e.g, you served as an intern) then that may work a bit in your favor. You'd still have to be a strong candidate to begin with, but because the most elite colleges regularly turn away hundreds--even thousands--of very qualified applicants, anything that makes you stand out in the crowd can be a plus.