Should Letters of Recommendation Be Eliminated?

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All colleges and universities view high school grades, standardized test scores, and essays as some of the most critical factors in college admissions. But letters of recommendation, although just one part of your application, also play a vital role. 

Letters of recommendation help round out a student’s application profile and provide insight into what they’re like as a student and person. They present a holistic view of a student’s unique qualities, character, tenacity, academic successes, and personal achievements. 

Most universities require one to three letters of recommendation within a student's application. Generally, these recommendations come from guidance counselors and two teachers. 

But experts are starting to uncover that letters of recommendation, although crucial to a college application, are burning out admissions officers and are biased. Would you get a recommendation from someone who won’t say nice things about you? 

Letters of Recommendation Are Burning Out Staff

Letters of recommendation tend to be most important when applying to small private colleges and schools with “holistic” admissions philosophies. But recommendation letters are generally less important when applying to schools with many applicants or limited resources to evaluate applications. 

Remember, a real human must read and evaluate students’ recommendation letters, which is a monetary cost to colleges. When resources are limited, especially at schools with large applicant pools, there may not be enough staff to evaluate multiple letters of recommendation for each applicant thoroughly.

In a 2016 survey of admissions professionals, nearly half (43%) reported that members of their team complained of exhaustion during their busiest cycles.

Decision fatigue is a dangerous and expensive problem for admissions committees. First, mental fatigue can lead to various subconscious biases that a more alert and aware person would ignore. And second, it can cost you some of your best applicants.

This problem becomes especially apparent as schools adopt a more holistic review of students. Schools are adding more layers of decision-making without accounting for the cognitive toll that this takes on the reviewer.

In fact, college admissions officers are now spending less time reviewing college applications than ever before. Admissions officers working in teams of two used to spend 12-15 minutes with an application but currently spend just four to six minutes per application.

The University of Pennsylvania is one of several institutions that changed to a team approach for the admissions process.

Yvonne Romero da Silva, vice dean and director of admissions at the college, told the Chronicle that before the change, staff was reading applications on the weekends and the evenings. They needed a more sustainable model. 

So in 2015, two colleagues at the university proposed a new way of evaluating applicants. Now,  Penn’s admissions officers read together in pairs, simultaneously reviewing each application on separate screens and discussing it as they go. 

They rate each applicant on specific criteria, recommend a decision (admit or deny), and type notes into the system — no more long summaries. Before the change, admissions officers doing the first read reviewed four or five applications an hour. Now the two-person teams can get through as many as 15.

Applications that include extra material could bog down the process or be glossed over, not considering a student’s full abilities. Subtle details are likely to be missed by admissions officers.

As colleges face surges in applications, they must reevaluate how to vet applicants.

Letters of Recommendation Are Biased

Every year, professors worldwide write millions of letters of recommendation. They write letters for admission to graduate, law, and medical schools. They write letters for students who wish to study abroad. And they write letters for fellowships, scholarships, and graduate student research grants. 

But one major problem with letters of recommendation is that people will only ask for references from those who will give a positive review. And this issue is not a minor limitation but the big problem

“Letters of reference have a major weakness for selecting students – that is, the students will try to only ask for letters from those who will write positive letters.  Everyone has at least someone who will speak positively of them.  As such, the research on the validity of letters of reference for predicting school performance is not very supportive,” Michael Campion, Ph.D., Herman C. Krannert, Distinguished Professor of Management, said in a recent Talent Select AI interview. 

Peer-reviewed research on letters of recommendation shows that they possess very little value.

In 1993, Michael G. Aamodt, Deon A. Bryan, and Alan J. Whitcomb published an article in Public Personnel Management which carefully reviewed the evidence on letters of recommendation and described their many problems.

First, Aamodt, Bryand, and Whitcomb noted that these letters suffer from extreme bias. Students often choose the professor who likes them the most, which means that many letters are unusually favorable. Conversely, many professors refuse to write letters for weaker students. 

Additionally, The Journal of Academic Medicine published an analysis of 437 letters submitted for three cohorts of medical students in 2014. The results showed that of 76 types of information contained in letters of recommendation, researchers found only three that affected graduation rates significantly. 

The problems of low validity and inherent bias in letters of recommendation, the experts explained, are too much for letters of recommendation to be helpful.

Campion noted that although letters of recommendation might be biased and invalid, some hiring officials will give great attention to the letters. Therefore, candidates should take them very seriously.  

And two significant considerations when students ask their mentors to write school admission letters are how positive the letter will be and how credible the writer will be. 

“Both are very important,” Campion said. “On the margin, being very positive is more important because a neutral letter from a credible source is worse than not having a credible source. The letter should not only be positive, but it must contain facts to be convincing.”

“School admissions officers know that all letters will be positive, so they mainly look for useful facts. You know your credentials better than the letter writer, so don’t just hope the writer knows too. This includes providing your resume, of course, and bullet points about your strengths relevant to the selection decision context (e.g., evidence that you are a good student or highly dedicated to the profession). Readers of letters value when the writers can interpret the candidate’s credentials in light of the selection decisions,” he concluded.

Every year, professors worldwide write millions of letters of recommendation. But these letters are biased and burn out admissions officers due to understaffing at colleges and universities.


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