The Ivy Coach Daily

March 20, 2021

Letters of Recommendation Remain Vital

Letters of recommendation are an important component of the highly selective college admissions process — and should remain as so (photo credit: Namkota).

Are you convinced your junior year English teacher writes the best letters of recommendation? If so, well, you probably haven’t read our past blogs on recommendations from English teachers. What have you been doing with your time instead? We kid, we kid. But, in all seriousness, English teachers are notorious for writing generic letters of recommendation. And why? Because, in our experience, English teachers are less likely than are their counterparts in other disciplines to incorporate the input of students. And, yes, students should absolutely aim to influence what goes in their letters of recommendations because left to their own devices, the vast majority of high school teachers — including, yes, English teachers — cut and paste generic letters of recommendation which don’t serve applicants. But letters of recommendation need not be generic. Students can remind their teachers about projects they worked on, conversation they sparked, and more and these gentle reminders can indeed help sway teachers to write super specific letters of recommendation that offer admissions officers necessary insight into the candidate that grades and scores alone cannot convey.

Editorialist Argues in Favor of Abolishing Letters of Recommendation

It was thus surprising for us to read an editorial published today by Melody Moezzi for NBC News entitled “This college admissions season, let’s end the odious, racist practice of recommendations” in which the author argues that letters of recommendation belong in “the dustbin of history.” The dustbin of history?! But why? Well, as Dr. Moezzi writes, “Studies bear this out, revealing harmful disparities in letters of recommendation that favor white male applicants in everything from college admissions to medical residency placements to internships. The Covid-19 pandemic only promises to magnify such disparities, as marginalized individuals who already have fewer professional contacts also have fewer occasions to make such contacts while working from home…I long for a day when my work can speak for itself, when all the gatekeepers who’ve spent centuries ignoring people like me are finally ousted and when I can simply apply for whatever I want without having to ask anyone else to vouch for me. If our institutions genuinely want to evolve past tired tokenism toward true equity and inclusion, then banning letters of recommendation would be an excellent start. So, America, I know you’re busy and I hate to bother you, but can we please bury this relic already?”

Letters of Recommendation Are An Imperfect But Necessary Component of College Admissions Process

So let’s get this straight. Many want our nation’s elite universities to do away with test scores as factors in the admissions process. The pandemic has, of course, ushered in an era of “test-optional” admissions. Some schools didn’t issue grades during the second semester of last year when schools transitioned to online learning. And now this Dr. Moezzi is arguing for the abolishment of letters of recommendation. Others argue for the elimination of admissions essays and interview. What, pray tell, will admissions officers use to evaluate applicants to their universities in the absence of all of this information? Tarot cards? Let’s be clear. Letters of recommendation are not perfect. Some teachers write better letters of recommendations than others. Teachers at more affluent high schools may have more time to devote to writing letters of recommendation than do teachers at less affluent high schools — though teachers at all high schools are surely capable of writing great letters that offer important insight into candidates that admissions officers wouldn’t otherwise know. It could be a single word in a letter of recommendation that sinks an applicant (e.g., quiet, shy, argumentative) or, alternatively, breathes new life into their case for admission (e.g., insightful, engaged, compassionate). And, yes, these insights can be instrumental to the admissions process. They certainly don’t belong in “the dustbin of history.”

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