In the 1920s, the heads of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton decided they were admitting too many Jewish students. Until that point, acceptances had been determined largely by students’ scores on entrance exams, giving administrators little control over who made the cut, as sociologist Jerome Karabel writes in his 2005 book on the history of Ivy League admissions, The Chosen.
So the Big Three changed their admissions criteria to a more subjective process, one that would allow them to justify rejecting high-scoring Jewish students in favor of lower-performing non-Jews. “The centerpiece of the new system,” Karabel wrote, “was the personal letter of recommendation, especially those from trusted sources such as alumni and headmasters or teachers from the leading feeder schools.”
Ivy League schools didn’t invent reference letters—they were proffered by young clients seeking new patrons in ancient Greece, and used by Enlightenment-era Prussian universities to determine how much applause academic candidates received after delivering lectures—but the story of how they came to be a hallmark of the American university system underscores their potential as a tool for discrimination. Yet reference letters remain widespread today, required for everything from school admissions to internships, jobs, grants, fellowships, and all manner of opportunities that pop up throughout a person’s career.
A vocal contingent of critics, however, say that reference letters need to be radically overhauled—or even, as University of Minnesota administrator Michelle Iwen suggests, eliminated entirely.
“It does absolutely feel like a form of gatekeeping,” says author Elizabeth McCracken, a creative writing professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “And it’s not just what goes into the letter. Just the process of requiring that you have three people that you feel like you can ask is keeping great people away from education.”
A reference letter requirement for schools or jobs can discourage some applicants from applying altogether. “The idea that people who either don’t know people or are nervous or shy about asking for letters will then not apply for jobs or fellowships, it’s terrible to me,” McCracken says. –Sarah Todd
Read on to see why institutions might want to keep—or lose—reference letters.
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Trinny Woodall, the entrepreneur behind personalized makeup brand Trinny London, had a wealth of knowledge about the type of business she wanted to build before launching her startup at the age of 49. But she also had experience of failure: A previous online shopping brand, launched in 1999 towards the end of the dotcom bubble, raised £7 million before crashing out of business in a year.
Now, with a blooming business, Trinny tells Quartz At Work about how she kept things lean with her new venture, and brought her experience—of makeovers, customers, and software, among other things—to bear a second time around.
This week’s edition of The Memo was written by Sarah Todd, Cassie Werber and Heather Landy. It was edited by Francesca Donner.
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