On this President’s Day, let’s ponder the following: Would a letter of recommendation from President Barack Obama, President of the United States himself, ensure your acceptance?
I’m sure a letter from President Obama would get passed around the admissions office. That presidential seal and signature (even if from a machine) would be an eye catcher, but does it equal an automatic acceptance?
What if you had an LOR from a past president? Or from a senator? Or governor? The president of a Fortune 500 company? Maybe Mark Zuckerberg? Would that prominent stamp get the job done?
Substance Matters, Not Fame
The title after the author’s name doesn’t matter nearly as much as the substance above the signature. Can the author, whatever his or her title, talk from personal experience about your character when answering the questions posed in a recommendation form or in writing the typical letter of recommendation? If the recommender doesn’t have that personal perspective, can’t bring detail and example to the letter, then the title may be a curiosity, but no more.
That VIP letter could be less effective than a detail-filled letter from your twenty-something team lead who writes with specific examples and persuasive substance about your contribution to her organization.
Well, Fame CAN Help If…
Now if President Obama were to write about:
• The difference you made to his 2012 campaign or your contribution in nabbing Osama bin Laden.
• Your ability to organize his brilliant social media campaign.
• An example of integrity that he saw first-hand.
• Your initiative and analytical ability during the Iran nuclear deal negotiations.
Then you would have an extraordinarily powerful letter of recommendation. However if he (or his third secretary twice removed) just wrote a general, flowery ode to how wonderful you are with no specifics, it would be of no value. It would just be a shiny seal and sig.
But it’s Substance that Really Matters in the End
Of course if your team lead wrote about:
• Your contribution to the team and the difference you have made to the bottom line.
• Your ability to organize a social media campaign or just about anything else of significance.
• An example of integrity that she saw first-hand.
• Your initiative and cool during a crisis.
You would also have a compelling letter of recommendation.
So on this President’s Day, keep in mind that a powerful letter of recommendation is much more about substance than station, personal insight than position, examples than eminence.