Why Letters of Recommendation Don't Matter
A big time-management mistake: doing it for the letter.
Posted December 17, 2018
Many people are thinking about graduate school this time of year. They’re applying. They’ve applied and are waiting to hear back. They’re preparing to apply next year. For those who are considering their future applications, they’re thinking about what decisions they can make now that will put them in a good place when they apply. It’s no secret what a solid package consists of—strong grades, competitive test scores, a compelling personal statement, and the most enigmatic component of all: letters of recommendation.
The letters of recommendation are the one piece of the puzzle that you don’t control directly. For the most part, you’re at the mercy of someone else—what they’re going to say, how enthusiastically they’re going to say it. Sure, you know whether or not you have a decent relationship with the people who will be writing on your behalf. But do you know whether they consider you the top 10 percent of their students? And what exactly are they going to mention? Are they going to equivocate in their letter because of some mistake you’ve made previously?
If you want good GRE scores, then it’s straightforward to how to get them. Spend a month studying for the GRE, take the test, and repeat this process until you’re happy with your scores. But the opacity of letters of recommendations makes them much harder to optimize for. This leads people to make a crucial mistake in their decision-making. Let’s call it, “doing it for the letter.”
Doing it for the letter means engaging in an activity expressly because you think it will make your supervisor write a glowing letter for you. And it’s absolutely awful to make decisions.
At its core, it’s a decision about how to spend your time today, under the assumption that it will make a substantive difference in the quality of the letter you get in the future. There are three main reasons why that strategy doesn’t make any sense:
First, it’s almost impossible to intuit the causal link of how your actions now will influence your letter later. Let’s say that you go out of your way to answer your advisor’s emails at preposterous hours of the night. How is this going to be reflected in your letter? It probably won’t be mentioned at all, but even if it is, it'll be couched in obscure language, as in “She is an excellent communicator.” What’s the person who is reading this letter supposed to infer from that? But more importantly what seems like a big deal to you is only of minor consequence to your advisor. They’ve got so much more on their mind other than mentally cataloging your performance reviews. Chances are that you’re going to way overestimate how much any given action is going to influence their perception of you.
Second, most advisors want their students to succeed. Even if it's not under their supervision, they want the people who have worked for them to go on lead satisfying careers. It reflects well on them, if nothing else. They've also invested in you and through that probably grew to care about you quite a bit. So most letters of recommendation are going to sing the praises of the person they're recommending—an attempt to frame your personality and contributions in the best possible light. Accordingly, the difference between letters often has more to do with the person writing it than the person they’re writing it for. The payoff for going out of your way to do it for the letter isn’t going to be big enough to justify the cost.
Third, and most importantly, this is simply not the right way to value your time. Playing the game is important, to be sure. And you can't alienate the people who can speak to your good qualities. But in the long term, your success is going to depend on your own drive and the value of what you create. This isn't going to be a function of what your advisor thinks about you. This is about you choosing how to use your time so as to give the best you have to your life's work. Your advisor can't tell you how to do that. Only you have all the information necessary to make that decision.
No matter what your next move is, don't choose to spend your time trying to get in the good graces of a superior. You are in control of how you will use your time. You are responsible for creating value in your work. And if you're always worried about impressing those above you as your first priority, then chances are you'll continue to do this. That's not the way to create something meaningful.
So, please, don't just do it for the letter. Do it for yourself.