Beliefs come from somewhere. Never before has a belief popped into existence without a reason behind it. Perhaps that’s why it’s so hard to kill a belief once it’s gotten started, even in lieu of any facts: vaccines cause autism, global warming is an international conspiracy, the US never landed a man on the moon…
Letters of recommendation for graduate school fall into the same category; the false assumptions surrounding them is irritating at best and life altering at worst. One of the most detrimental assumptions held by top applicants goes something like this:
“My recommender is famous, so I’m kind of a big deal”
Yeah. No. You’re not. Let us elaborate.
Every year well qualified students with great credentials lull themselves into a false sense of security, ultimately setting themselves up for a second or third tier school as a result.
The applicant has a recommender that is a hot shot at their school (perhaps a department chair, or faculty member with a lot of Nature or Science papers) and rationalize that having that person recommend their application makes a huge impact on their applications. At a minimum they assume they have their letters of recommendation locked down and don’t need to spend any time worrying about them. There are many things wrong with this logic, and we’ve enumerated three of them below in an effort to convince you not to make this fatal application mistake.
(1) “Famous” faculty are always more busy than “non-famous” faculty.
If your recommender is truly as great as you think they are, then they’re busy doing all the things that made them famous in the first place. This means less time for students and less time to hand craft 1-2 page personalized letters that convince a committee to accept you. As we’ve written time and time again, generic letters of recommendation are application killers. Conversely a highly personalized, convincing, and detailed letter can propel a mediocre application into a top 10 program. The better a persons core statistics, and the more well known an applicants recommender is, the more likely that student will slack under the assumption that their letter is already locked down. You can’t assume you’ll have good letters, you have to know it. A great letter from an assistant faculty member is almost always preferential to a generic one from a department chair. If you have a well known recommender, they still need to able to provide you with the time and effort required of a great letter, no matter how busy they may be.
(2) Impressive faculty members expect vastly more out of students.
This is a hard one, because most students don’t question whether or not they’ll get “good” letters (i.e. my advisor agreed, so they must think I’m great). It’s very difficult to say with certainty whether someone truly respects your work, and the more “impressive” the person the higher the bar to truly impress them.
Why would they agree to write you a letter if they didn’t think you were up to snuff? Perhaps you worked in their lab for two years and it’d be unprofessional and uncomfortable to say no. Perhaps they don’t think you have the work ethic and plan to submit a poor letter as a consequence (faculty are human too, and humans can be petty). The point here is that agreeing to write you a letter is not the same as agreeing to write you a great letter.
These potential issues increase when the faculty member is dominate in their field. They’ll naturally tend to expect that much more out of their students (sometimes vastly more than they themselves were capable of at your age). They’ll also have a vested interested in preserving their name–they won’t lend their reputation to someone unless they’re 100% certain that person will reflect well on them.
Take a step back and think about it: The only reason a letter from an impressive recommender would hold more weight is if it implied you impressed someone with higher than normal standards. For this to hold true, your letter has to be just as personal and persuasive as a letter your mother would write you, except from an expert in your field. Very few undergraduates get the kind of time and access to top faculty that’s necessary to get such a great endorsement.
(3) Impressing admissions committees is harder than impressing you.
Just because someone is impressive to you, doesn’t mean they’ll be impressive to anyone else. Sure, maybe your advisor went to Harvard 30 years ago, but so did literally hundreds of thousands of other people. Applicants consistently over-estimate the swagger of their professors. Even if one of your recommenders is legitimately a big name in your field, that could still mean squat to your application. For most universities, the application process is two staged: both the university and the department have to accept you. While faculty members in your field will certainly look at your application at some point in the process, a lot of the review is handled by administrators and a broad combination of faculty. Depending on your niche, it’s likely that a lot of people looking at your application won’t have a clue who the recommender is, so betting the game on that persons status is extremely dangerous. If this with a generic letter because the professor is extremely busy, suddenly that letter is an enormous liability instead of an asset.
The truth is that plenty of faculty members write letters for students they would never recommend in a private conversation to another faculty member. The threat of being sued coupled with guilt and social/professional obligation means that faculty end up writing a lot of lackluster letters. Unspoken rules regarding recommendations in the USA dictate that a sincere letter provides detail, encouragement, and definitive statements backing that students potential. A generic and short letter with wishy washy praise can be perceived as tantamount to a horrible letter (with the faculty member simply covering themselves from potential legal complications).
So, should you just avoid famous or well known researchers?
No. But don’t seek them out specifically because they’re well known, either. Choose recommenders that know you well and who are willing to work with you on your letter, regardless of their status. It’s possible to get a bonus point or two if someone on the admissions committees recognizes the recommenders name, but besides being unlikely, those extra couple points will never make up for a generic letter of recommendation. For that reason, it’s best to approach all your letters under the assumption that nobody will have the faintest idea of who these people are.
The letters need to speak for themselves.