What do you look for in recommendation letters? Does it help to have a recommendation from a famous or important person?
NYU: Most of the letters of recommendations we receive are extremely positive. However, the most helpful letters to an admissions committee are from recommenders who are able to address the candidate’s ability to succeed in a rigorous academic environment, be an active, engaged participant in an academic community, and show evidence of good character and integrity. Substantive letters from persons who have taught the candidate in advanced coursework are particularly welcome. Specific examples of the quality of the candidate’s work provide additional evaluative context. We appreciate letters from recommenders who are able to compare a candidate’s intellectual abilities etc. with others that the writer may have recommended to us in the past. As far as letters from VIPs – usually I appreciate these because I am able to add the signatures to my autograph collection that I will sell some day on ebay when I am ready to retire. Seriously, letters from VIPs have a positive impact only if the writer shows that the candidate supervised the candidate’s work in some professional setting.
Columbia: I completely agree with Dean Kleinrock, especially regarding the autographs. Recommendation letters present a unique opportunity for a candidate to provide independent verification of his/her intellectual and other abilities by a third party and, as such, are most useful when written by people who have been in a position to evaluate the candidate’s work, whether academic or professional.
Michigan: Somewhere along the line, someone told me it was wrong to sell the autographs, and I now realize I have I have wasted a golden opportunity. When we get a recommendation letter from someone who is famous, we will often communicate nicely with the letter writer in a way that goes above and beyond how we communicate with the rest of our recommendation letter writers—but getting a letter from someone famous does not result in a different outcome for the person being recommended. We look at the letters for all the substantive reasons already set out by my colleagues. I will add that while it is particularly helpful to get at least one academic recommendation letter, we recognize that can be difficult or impossible for people who have been out of school for a chunk of time.
Chicago: In letters of recommendation the Admissions Committee is trying to get additional information regarding the applicant from outside sources. These letters are important as they can provide some important insights into the applicant’s capabilities. The LORs should be from people that truly know the applicant and has supervised their work. Also, we prefer to have at least one academic and it doesn’t have to be from a well known professor. I attended a large university and didn’t have a lot of contact with the professor for the class, so I got a LOR from the teaching assistant who handled the discussion section of the class and graded the exams. This individual could speak more to my improvement during the class. These types of letters are more helpful to the committee as they are evaluating the applicant. So I have to agree with my colleagues that a letter from the famous person is just helpful if they know your capabilities and work performance or if one collects autographs!
Yale: I don’t have much to add here than what my colleagues have already said. I will say that at Yale it is extremely important to have at least two academic references, even if you have been out of school for a while. Since most students are admitted through faculty review, it is important to demonstrate your academic promise and what you would be like as a student in the classroom.
As for important people, we can tell when the VIP writing on your behalf is doing it as a courtesy, and when they really know you personally – usually the former letter is short and perfunctory, and the latter is longer and more details (and signed in actual ink as opposed to a stamp). But even when the letter is personal, I would say the only time such a letter has carried any weight is when the person is an alum of our law school and has compared the applicant specifically to the type of people we normally admit. In other words, a detailed letter from former President Bill Clinton which says, “Jane is one of the most impressive people I have ever met and is easily the equal of any of the classmates I had when I was a student at Yale Law School,” will likely carry some weight. (NOTE: I’ve never gotten such a letter from President Clinton.) So unless the VIP went to Yale, s/he knows you extremely well (preferably in an academic or professional capacity, rather than as a family friend), and was impressed enough by you to write an over-the-top letter, don’t bother.
Stanford: I agree completely with Dean Kleinrock’s assessment. You know, most people, in general, don’t write letters anymore unless they absolutely have to in cases like ours. It’s a lost art so I am particularly pleased when I come across letters that are thoughtful and detailed. I especially like the letters where the writer compares the person in question to other students he/she has sent my way in the past. Not only does it provide context, but it shows me how seriously the recommender considers his/her task at hand. Letters from famous people? The only thing that matters to me is how well someone knows the applicant and whether they can add something substantive to the review process. We’ve all got some mighty fine autograph collections, but many of those letters have value only in the signature and not in what was actually written.