Letters of reference perpetuate inequity. Let’s end it – Quartz at work


In the 1920s, leaders at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton decided they were admitting too many Jewish students. Until then, acceptances were largely determined by students’ entrance exam scores, which gave administrators little control over applicants, as sociologist Jerome Karabel writes in his 2005 book on the history of Ivy League admissions, The chosen.

Thus, the Big Three changed their admission criteria into a more subjective process, which would allow them to justify rejecting top-rated Jewish students in favor of lower-performing non-Jews. “The centerpiece of the new system,” Karabel wrote, “was the personal recommendation letter, especially those from reliable sources such as alumni and principals or teachers at major food schools.”

Ivy League schools did not invent letters of reference – they were donated by young clients seeking new clients in ancient Greece, and used by Enlightenment-era Prussian universities to determine how much applause university applicants have received after giving lectures – but the history of their arrival being a hallmark of the American university system underscores their potential as a tool of discrimination. Yet reference letters remain widespread today, required for everything from school admissions to internships, jobs, grants, scholarships, and all kinds of opportunities that arise throughout a person’s career.

A vocal contingent of critics, however, say the letters of reference need to be drastically revised, or even, as University of Minnesota administrator Michelle Iwen suggests, eliminated entirely.

“It absolutely looks like a form of control,” says author Elizabeth McCracken, professor of creative writing at the University of Texas at Austin. “And that’s not just what’s going on in the letter. Just requiring you to have three people you feel like you can ask for takes great people away from education.

Reference letters and access control

A reference letter requirement for schools or jobs may discourage some applicants from fully applying. “The idea that people who don’t know people or who are nervous or shy about asking for letters won’t apply for jobs or scholarships, that’s terrible to me,” McCracken says.

Of course, the people most likely to be penalized by the requirements of letters of reference are more likely to come from less advantaged backgrounds. A teacher in a small college preparatory school is much better equipped to navigate the expectations of admissions committees than “someone in a large, public, underfunded school where each class has a wider range of abilities. and the number of students to get to find out more, and the teaching load is probably higher, ”Jon Boeckenstedt, vice-president of enrollment management at Oregon State University, wrote in the Washington Post in 2016.

Boeckenstedt, who was working for DePaul University in Chicago at the time, wrote that DePaul did not need teacher recommendations because “the letter has virtually nothing to do with the students performance, and much to do with the teacher capacity. “

Another problem with reference letters is that committees reviewing them may end up giving preference to recommendations from people already in their network. “I have taken letters written by people I know or whose work I esteem most seriously,” historian Suzanne Marchand wrote of her time leading academic job searches. “I didn’t want to do the people I already respected a favor, but knowing them and / or their scholarship just provided more context to understand the praise being given.”

Worse yet, another practice, according to Marchand, is common in universities: alone the author’s header.

Bottom line: The letters of reference “just reinforce any kind of educational inequity that has happened before, because these are system credentials,” says McCracken. “It really perpetuates that ‘I-know-someone-who-knows-someone’ [approach] which is anti-fairness, anti-educational and anti-art, in the case of MFA programs.

How Gender and Racial Bias Shape Reference Letters

Research also suggests that what recommenders write is influenced by their own biases.

A 2018 study of letters of recommendation for candidates applying for assistant professor positions, for example, found that letters to female applicants included more sentences indicating doubt. Examples included hidden remarks – “I guess she’ll be a relatively good teacher” – and subtle criticisms masquerading as compliments – “She’s unlikely to become a superstar, but she’s very solid.”

A 2016 study of letters of recommendation for geoscience postdoctoral fellowships found that women were half as likely as men to receive excellent (as opposed to good) letters. And other studies have shown that letters of recommendation for men are more likely to focus on quality of work and leadership ability, while letters for women more frequently focus on “common” qualities like compassion.

There is less research on racial bias in letters of recommendation, but a 2017 study of medical student evaluations found that black students were more likely to be described as “competent,” while undergraduates. whites were more likely to be described as “exceptional” or “exceptional.” “And in 2018, in a lawsuit in which Harvard was accused of discriminating against Asian-American applicants, Harvard’s dean of admissions said white students were given recommendations” a bit stronger ”from teachers and counselors than Asian American students.

Reference letters too good to be true

Then there is the problem of the so-called “letter inflation”, which results in letters so exaggerated that they fail to paint a precise or meaningful picture. Since people generally only agree to write letters for candidates they think are qualified, and since anything less than breathless praise is often seen as a red flag, reference letters can end up being almost identical hyperbole fonts.

“Now that I’ve sat on committees facing hundreds of letters, each describing said candidate as ‘outstanding’ or some other superlative, I find myself paying less and less attention to them,” sociologist Rima wrote. Wilkes in the journal Science in 2016.

In other words, not only requiring reference letters from all applicants is a way of perpetuating educational inequalities, but it is also ineffective.

A post-letter world

One way to remedy the ineffectiveness of reference letters is to require them only from finalists, a practice endorsed by Phoebe Bronstein, assistant professor and director of academic programs in the University’s Culture, Art and Technology program. from California to San Diego. At the very least, this approach reduces the amount of work involved in writing and sorting reference letters, and allows committees to narrow the pool of applicants without being influenced by their level of connection.

In cases where references are really necessary, having a phone call with recommenders instead of asking for letters tends to produce more useful information, wrote Mark Nehler, director of a surgical residency program at Colorado University of Medicine, in an article of 2018 for the Journal of Graduate Medical Education.

Nathan R. Kuncel, professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, endorses the idea of ​​“anchored behavioral ratings” over traditional reference letters to help reduce bias and produce more useful information about the candidates. He told Inside Higher Ed that these assessments answer questions such as, “Does the student participate a lot in class? Does the student bring additional material to share? Do students collaborate and listen to others? These questions are more useful than asking for references to assess a student’s cognitive abilities, which are best measured by other application materials.

But the surest way to resolve issues with reference letters is to stop asking them altogether. The Minneapolis College of Art and Design, for example, announced in 2020 that it would no longer require letters for MFA applicants, in recognition of the “classist and racist history of letters of recommendation.”

In The chosen, Karabel writes that “an institution will abandon a to treat selection once it no longer produces the results. “

If diversity and equity are truly the goal, then institutions should carefully consider letters of reference. And if institutions refuse to consider the myriad drawbacks of the current system, perhaps continuous monitoring is exactly what they want.


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