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Letters of recommendation: An unfair part of college admissions

DePaul University in Chicago (Photo courtesy of DePaul)
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With some exceptions, selective colleges consider five main parts of an application: transcripts, test scores, personal essays, extracurricular activities and letters of recommendation. Here is a contrarian viewpoint on those letters from the associate vice president for enrollment management and marketing at DePaul University in Chicago. The nation’s largest Catholic university, DePaul does not require SAT or ACT scores or teacher recommendations. It does ask applicants to have their school counselors complete a recommendation form.

By Jon Boeckenstedt

You don’t have to look too far these days to see debate and action on reforming college admissions. The Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success is creating a new application and portfolio system to address what it says are barriers to higher education’s gated communities. Dozens of colleges each year, including many with high profiles, are dropping the requirement for the SAT or ACT, after conducting research that says the tests don’t add much in helping colleges predict academic success in college. I’ve even written about having Google manage the college admissions process.  And, most recently The Making Caring Common Project at Harvard has issued Turning the Tide, a manifesto of sorts that calls for big changes in how colleges evaluate applications.

But ironically, many of these calls for reform seem to overlook, and even re-emphasize, one of the biggest barriers to college admission at selective institutions: The letter of recommendation, which is either required or recommended by over 1,100 of the 1,943 four-year, private and public universities that grant degrees and admit freshmen, according to federal data.

As my colleague at Trinity College, Angel Perez points out, our current system of evaluating applications was created almost 100 years ago, and little has changed since then  As a young admissions officer in 1989, I even remember hearing Fred Hargadon, the iconic dean of admissions at Stanford and then Princeton, ask whether Moses had brought down tablets encoding the current system from the mountain with him, given how entrenched as a profession we were.

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I tell my own kids all the time that life isn’t fair, and I’ve even said that about the college admissions process.  But the letter of recommendation seems to make it even less so, especially when very selective institutions use the letters to illuminate nuances of character, intellect, curiosity, and special talent that help an applicant rise above the masses of otherwise similar students.  It’s not hard to see why this might be important when sorting through thousands of applications, where the portrait of the applicant is very wide but not very deep. But consider this issue not from the side of the college, but rather the perspective of the student.

Imagine you’re 17 again, and you have to ask teachers to write a letter for you. What do you know about how well a particular teacher writes?  Do you know what a “good” letter contains? Do you even understand that the spectrum of writing ability almost certainly varies widely among teachers, as it does with any group of professionals?  In all probability, you just have to trust yourself, flying blind in a process you get to go through just once.

This seems grossly unfair: The letter has virtually nothing to do with the student’s performance, and a lot to do with the teacher’s ability to turn a phrase, note interesting character traits, structure a cogent series of paragraphs that tell a story, and even throw in a few instances of discordia concors to show his or her own wit and charm.  In short, it’s as much about the teacher as the student. Is that the intent?

Moreover, it can also be about how much time a teacher has to complete the task, and the extent to which she sees it as a function of her duties.  Who is, on average, going to write the better, more complete, and more nuanced letter? A teacher from a small college prep school where it’s widely understood that giving students every advantage in the college admissions process is a part of the job? Or someone in a large, public, under-resourced school where the range of abilities in each class is wider, and the number of students to get to know greater, and the teaching load is probably higher?  Who is more likely to be able to go to the conferences and the workshops where this specific skill is taught and honed, often under the tutelage of the ones who eventually read the letters?

I think we know the answer.  When I continue to fight against the term “need blind” in admissions, it’s stuff like this, coupled with my own experience, that fuels my thinking.

If this is true for teacher letters, it’s even more concerning when it comes to the counselor letter many colleges require.  Many private high schools and well-resourced public schools have college counselors, professionals with a sole focus on the college application process, who are expected to know the students they work with well, and to write letters that illuminate character, personality and strengths.

But in many other schools, counselors struggle with divided duties that cause them to focus first on the students with the most pressing needs: Schedule changes, discipline issues, accommodations for learning disabilities, and even life-threatening issues like physical and sexual abuse in the student’s home.  When faced with heavy caseloads of that kind, helping a high-achieving student with college naturally falls lower on the priority list.

I used to work for Grinnell, a highly selective college in Iowa, and we would see letters from teachers and counselors in rural school districts in the state who clearly were not used to writing any letters of recommendation for students, let alone for the trailblazing students applying to selective liberal arts institutions.   The very act of bucking the trend, of course, indicated some element of independence and individuality, a character trait prized at this institution, which is more like a traditional New England liberal arts college, and completely different  than the big research universities that dominate in the Midwest.

These Iowa teachers would frequently write about how the student is intellectually head and shoulders above his peers, then add something like, “He is never afraid to ask a question when he doesn’t understand a concept.”  If you don’t speak Iowan, you may not realize this teacher has sent a coded message, saying, “This student is brilliant, but among his peers, he still exhibits that most-prized Midwestern value called ‘humility.'”  Yet invariably, one member of the admissions committee, a hard charger from the east coast, would take this to mean, “The kid is slow on the uptake.” How could the student or the teacher anticipate this?

I trust many of my colleagues consider this heresy. There are so many things we see all the time, yet never really see at all, and never really ask why they exist in the first place.  If you wanted to ensure that kids from more privileged backgrounds have a better chance to get into the schools with the most resources, letters of recommendation would be one of the things you’d start with.

And unlike most times, I’m at a loss to recommend exactly what might replace these letters. They do help in the discernment process when they’re well done.  But if we are concerned about making the admissions process more fair to all worthy candidates, a discussion among the profession’s best thinkers might be a good place to start.

Editor’s note: Below is DePaul’s counselor recommendation form: