Imagine a world in which applicants to our nation’s highly selective colleges can earn admission without test scores, grades, letters of recommendation, activities, and essays. Imagine a world in which applicants to our nation’s highly selective colleges can earn admission with only a smile. We’re kidding. Or are we kidding? If you read a piece up on Quartz by Sarah Todd entitled “Reference letters perpetuate inequity. Let’s end them,” you might be convinced that letters of recommendation should be eliminated from the elite college admissions process. And why? Because, in the view of some, letters of recommendation perpetuate inequity.
College Recommendation Letters Aren’t Perfectly Fair
As Ms. Todd writes, “A reference letter requirement for schools or jobs can discourage some applicants from applying altogether…Of course, the people most likely to be penalized by reference letter requirements are more likely to come from less-privileged backgrounds. A teacher at a small college prep school is far more equipped to navigate the expectations of admissions committees than ‘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,’ Jon Boeckenstedt, vice provost for enrollment management at Oregon State University, wrote in the Washington Post in 2016…Another issue with reference letters is that committees reviewing them may wind up giving preference to recommendations from people already in their network.”
But College Recommendation Letters, While Imperfect, Are Necessary
And where do we stand on recommendation letters? We fully understand that recommendation letters aren’t perfect. We understand that some teachers and school counselors are better than others at writing recommendation letters. But we also understand that admissions officers at elite universities don’t judge students based on, say, the quality of writing in a recommendation letter. They care only about the substance and they understand that students in underprivileged areas don’t have the same kind of teachers as do students at, say, Exeter or Andover. Yet they nonetheless seek out these students from underprivileged areas — as they should. So while we fully understand that college letters of recommendation, which first began to try to keep Jewish applicant from earning admission to the likes of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, aren’t perfect, they nevertheless serve a vital role in the admissions process. To eliminate them would close a window into the worlds of these applicants. And, besides, if we keep eliminating components of the admissions process, what will be left?
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