In the past couple years, we have made progress in dropping the GRE, and now the pandemic has come through with a huge assist. Maybe that’s the final blow for the GRE, as programs are now dropping it permanently. Which means that people who cared about the GRE are now placing higher importance on other pieces of applications, including recommendation letters.
Which leads me to ask: Are recommendation letters a good thing or a bad thing? Of course, I don’t think this is a binary matter and there’s a lot of nuance involved here.
I have heard a variety of concerns about recommendation letters in the graduate admissions process, and I think it would be foolhardy for us to think that we’ve made a big amount of progress by getting rid of the GRE. The problem with the GRE is that it doesn’t reflect ability, research potential, or value to the academic community, as it’s more tied to wealth, access to resources, and the accumulation of cultural and social capital. You could say the same thing about recommendation letters, too.
Let me illustrate the problem with recommendation letters with a little, and wholly true, story.
An undergraduate Biology major from a regional public university participates in a Summer Research Training Program at a highly prestigious institution. They succeed during their REU, and the PhD student who worked with the undergraduate is impressed by their research acumen and potential to excel in a graduate program. After the undergraduate is headed back home, the PI of the laboratory refused to sign a letter of recommendation for the student.
Why? The PI said that the undergraduate “didn’t have the adequate academic preparation” for grad school.
This is really puzzling, because the PI simply had no basis to make this assessment. They might have seen the student’s application to the summer program before they were admitted (which featured a quite respectable GPA), and during the summer, the PI was occasionally in the vicinity of the student. But really, the PI didn’t know the student at all, didn’t work with them, and the only information the PI had was the student’s Latinx identity and where they went to college.
I’ve been living with this story for some while, and it still upsets me. Part of what makes it so upsetting to me is that it’s so pedestrian. It’s the kind of thing that happens all the time. It’s something that people just live with and move on. Living with and moving on with this kind of bullshit is what perpetuates the inequities that, all of a sudden, everybody is having zoom meetings and book clubs and departmental committees about.
This story illustrates a lot of what can be wrong about recommendation letters. While we can take steps to minimize biases while we are reviewing an application, we can’t do much to prevent the biases of the letter writer from manifesting themselves on paper. (Or in this example, not even sign a letter at all.) If we take the presence of positive stories and praise in a letter as a positive, then when comparing applicants, this gives a relative advantage to people who don’t have letters are as good. Since not everybody has equitable access to “good letters,” then what good are they?
People with social capital and access to the hidden curriculum know that it’s savvy to cultivate relationships that will result in strong letters of recommendation. And folks who haven’t mastered that hidden curriculum might be just as spectacular, but don’t have those letter-writers ready to go. Just as the GRE is a problem because the test rewards those who are supported to become excellent test takers rather than excellent scholars, are recommendation letters a problem because they reward students who are better schmoozers and know how to impress their letter-writers more? I know we all would like to think we are excellent judges of character, but I also recognize that there are some students who probably deserve quality letters that I just don’t know very well because they didn’t cultivate that relationship with me, and I’m not capable of writing those quality letters. (And this intersects with the problem of unpaid research internships, because this gives access to those letters too, to those who can afford to work for free. How often is it that a quality letter of recommendation is dangled as a reward for labor?)
Another problem with letters is that people often put weight behind the impressiveness of the institution on the letterhead or the name on the signature line. If a recommendation letter comes from Harvard or UCSF or somesuch, does that really mean that the applicant has better chops or is more worthy than someone else? If it’s signed by a Nobel Laureate or a National Academy member, what does that really mean about the applicant? To a lot of people, those things matter. Which is, in my view, another drawback to using recommendation letters.
But, on the other hand, I also see that letters of recommendation are a way for me to describe so many of the positive attributes of a student that might be hard to communicate but are still valuable. And they allow me to advocate for students and be more direct about some challenges students have faced in ways that they might not be positioned to advocate for themselves.
I hope that a bunch of y’all do trust me and my judgement about my students, and so if I explain their talents and capabilities and talent in a letter of recommendation, I sincerely hope that this sways you. That’s why I’m writing the letter. And if you don’t know me or my work, then I would hope that my words themselves should still be taken at face value.
Just like some folks think the GRE can help students who have experienced academic and personal challenges (by scoring high and explaining low grades), maybe the recommendation letter serves this positive function as well.
That said, when I’m looking at applications (for anything), I think recommendation letters aren’t that helpful, when I’m dealing with people beyond the scope of my own department. I’m not going to penalize an applicant when someone is “missing” something in a letter, and it’s very rare that anybody from the US chooses to share a concerning piece of information. While there might be some information about an applicant that allows you to see how they might be well aligned with the expectations of the position, that this is as much the product of the letter-writer’s acumen as it is about the qualities and capacities of the candidate. I would much prefer a 5-minute phone conversation with a reference over a letter of recommendation. If there’s a program that has 100 applicants for 10 slots, I think it would a big mistake to rely much, or if at all, on the letters of recommendation to pluck those at the top.
So, then, if letters of recommendation are a problem, and the GRE is a problem, and you can’t judge a person based on how prestigious the university that they got into when they were in high school, and experience on a CV is more of a product of opportunities provided to person than anything else (and if grades often don’t tell much of a useful story because of intersecting issues), how can we evaluate people who are seeking opportunities? That’s a hard question. I think it’s one we need to sit with for a while.