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.”
Reference letters and gatekeeping
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.
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.
Boeckenstedt, who worked for DePaul University in Chicago at the time, wrote that DePaul did not require teacher recommendations because “the letter has virtually nothing to do with the student’s performance, and a lot to do with the teacher’s ability.”
Another issue with reference letters is that committees reviewing them may wind up giving preference to recommendations from people already in their network. “I took most seriously the letters written by people I knew or whose work I esteem,” historian Suzanne Marchand wrote of her time chairing academic job searches. “I did not wish to do the persons I already respected favors, but knowing them and/or their scholarship simply offered more context in which to understand the praise being given.”
Worse still is another practice Marchand says is common in academia: “examining only the author’s letterhead.”
Bottom line: Reference letters “just reinforce any kind of educational inequities that have come beforehand, because they’re credentials from the system,” says McCracken. “It really does perpetuate this ‘I-know-someone-who-knows-someone’ [approach] which is anti-equity, anti-educational, and anti-art, in the case of MFA programs.”
How gender and racial bias shapes reference letters
One 2018 study of letters of recommendation for candidates applying for assistant professor positions, for example, found that letters for female applicants included more phrases indicating doubt. Examples included hedged remarks—“I assume she will be a relatively good teacher”—and subtle criticism masquerading as compliment—“She is unlikely to become a superstar, but she is very solid.”
A 2016 study of recommendation letters for postdoctoral fellowships in geoscience found that women were only half as likely as men to receive excellent (as opposed to good) letters. And other studies have found 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 “communal” qualities like compassion.
There’s less research into racial bias in letters of recommendation, but a 2017 study of evaluations for medical students found Black students were more likely to be described as “competent,” while white students were more likely to be described as “standout” or “exceptional.” And in 2018, during a trial in which Harvard was accused of discriminating against Asian-American applicants, Harvard’s dean of admissions testified that white students received “somewhat stronger” recommendations from teachers and counselors than Asian-American students.
Reference letters that are too good to be true
Then there’s the issue of so-called “letter inflation,” which results in letters that are so over the top, they fail to paint an accurate 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 wind up being nearly identical fonts of hyperbole.
“Now that I have served on committees faced with 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 Wilkes wrote in the journal Science in 2016.
In other words, not only is requiring reference letters from all applicants a way of perpetuating educational inequality, it’s also inefficient.
A post-letter world
One way to address the inefficiency of reference letters is to require them only from finalists—a practice endorsed by Phoebe Bronstein, an assistant teaching professor and director of academic programs at the University of California San Diego’s culture, art, and technology program. At the very least, this approach reduces the amount of labor that goes into both writing and sorting through reference letters, and allows committees to narrow down the pool of applicants without being swayed by how well-connected they are.
In cases where references are truly needed, 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 the University of Colorado Medicine, in a 2018 article for the Journal of Graduate Medical Education.
Nathan R. Kuncel, a professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, endorses the idea of “behaviorally anchored ratings” over traditional reference letters to help reduce bias and produce more useful information about applicants. He told Inside Higher Ed that such ratings answer questions like: “Does the student participate a lot in class? Does the student bring in extra materials to share? Do the students collaborate and listen to others?” These questions are more valuable than asking references to assess a student’s cognitive abilities, which are better measured by other application materials.
But the surest path to addressing the problems with reference letters is to stop asking for 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 particular process of selection once it no longer produces the desired result.”
If diversity and equity are truly the goal, then institutions need to give reference letters a good, hard look. And if institutions refuse to consider the myriad drawbacks of the current system, perhaps continued gatekeeping is exactly the result they want.