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Do Recommendation Letters Discriminate?

Feb 22, 2022

On February 22nd, Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed released an article questioning whether the letter of recommendation requirement is a form of discrimination. Teachers from under-resourced schools are more likely to be overworked or working under “emergency credentialing systems” and students with a low-income background are more likely to receive vague, half-hearted letters from these overworked teachers.

A few schools recognize this equity problem. UCLA does not accept letters of recommendation. University of Washington also asks students not to send letters, while UT Austin makes them optional. However, these are rare cases. Jaschik writes that, according to a recent NACAC survey, 80 percent of colleges found letters of recommendation to be “important” to varying degrees, while the rest stated that it did not matter. Jaschik further explains that the Chief Education and Policy Officer of the NACAC, David Hawkins, contends that letters of recommendation contain bias and the “systemic factors that create inequities in students’ ability to fulfill this requirement” exist, including access to counselors and teachers.

With the recent pandemic, this predicament has been exacerbated by the lack of face-to-face interactions in virtual learning. Students’ methods of communicating with their teachers and counselors have increasingly become less personal, with diminished opportunities to stay behind after class to ask for help or to engage in active class discussions. Furthermore, students consider themselves lucky if they are able to have the same teacher for two years, or have their favorite teacher as a club advisor. In the worst case scenario, students are placed at a disadvantage due to factors outside of their control, such as attending a school with high turnover rates or having teachers for half a semester during their junior year.

In response, admission has come to recognize the increasing difficulty in forming personal connections with teachers and counselors. In an article from The Emory Wheel, the Emory Dean of Admission John Latting states that they saw letters to help “connect the dots….because there wasn’t deep engagement with the student.”

As colleges have shifted their emphasis on standardized tests to make them optional, we feel that the same should be done with letters of recommendation. Stratification within schools exists: the quality of the letter of recommendation can depend on whether students are provided separate college counselors who can give individualized attention for each of their students, while schools with higher student-to-counselor ratios are unable to provide letters that are as in-depth or catered to the student’s strengths. Thus, applicants shouldn’t have their chances of admission jeopardized by vague, low-quality letters. We believe that they should only submit letters written by those with whom they have forged meaningful and valuable connections.

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