Sunday, October 04, 2015

Letters of Recommendation

Is it just me, or are letters of recommendation useless?

Of course I'm talking about those letters of recommendation that high school teachers are asked to write for students as part of their college application packets.  Are these letters of enough value to justify the time spent writing them? 

The LA Times reports that UC Berkeley is considering asking some applicants to include such letters, which will no doubt start an arms race with the other UC campuses:
In a significant break from tradition, UC Berkeley will ask some freshman applicants to submit letters of recommendation from teachers and mentors this fall. And the UC system is studying whether all of its nine undergraduate campuses should do the same in future years as another way to choose among the avalanche of students seeking admission.

The new policy at UC Berkeley, while optional and limited this year, has triggered much debate at other UC campuses and high schools around the state about the value of such letters and whether they hurt or help the chances of public school students.

Adding even optional recommendations to all UC applications "would be a sea change," said Stephen Handel, UC's associate vice president for undergraduate admissions. Upcoming deliberation will have to measure the usefulness in admissions decisions against concerns that a change might "inadvertently disenfranchise certain students from even applying," he said.
What are the pros and cons?
Supporters say a recommendation letter can boost the chances of a deserving student whose test scores don't fully reflect his or her achievements and who did not have help from parents or private consultants in writing personal statements.

Critics question the letters' worth in predicting college success and say they can reinforce advantages of well-connected students and those who attend private high schools with small classes and ample counseling staff...

"The pros have not outweighed the cons," she said. Students in big public schools "do not always have access to counselors who really know them and can advocate for them." And those teachers and counselors may not have the time to write adequate letters, she added.
As a teacher, I have better things to do than to spend my time writing meaningless letters.  I can't just do a pro forma letter, I feel compelled to write a good one--and those take time:
"It's asking a lot more from the students and the high schools for something that will have a very minimal effect on whether the kids get in or not," he (a high school counselor) said, but he added that he would write them if asked.



David Fenig said...

Wouldn't most of these letters be very generic? If I had to write 10-15 letters a year, they would read pretty much the same except for a couple things here and there.

PeggyU said...

Maybe this helps to answer that question.Then again, maybe letters of recommendation do make a difference at some schools.

Anonymous said...

I was on a committee awarding scholarships to high school seniors a few years ago. The applications included two letters of recommendation. At first, it was amazing how many teachers just changed the student's name at the top of the letter and sent in the same letter for multiple students. After a while, we just gave up and just checked to see whether they sent one in and didn't pay attention to the content.

I think that letter of rec to the University would be treated the same way, unless the recommender was someone politically connected. At which point, the letter would end up being the totality of the application.

socalmike said...

I feel the same way, Darren. A number of years ago I put together a template that I use for my engineering students - they spend 3-4 years in the program, and they all do the same things, just a little difference in quality. It makes it easy to 'write' them - just change a few things and I'm good to go.

Then there's this thing called Common App - I actually like that, it makes it easy for the kid - one app, good for many schools - a good idea. But, I still have to write them a letter.

I'm already tired of writing them, and it's only October 5. Oof.

Roadtripper said...

My letters become somewhat generic, but I always add personal statements about the individual's character.

Ellen K said...

If it is a student I would recommend, I tell them to put together a resume and tell me what they want me to emphasize. I have rarely turned down a recommendation request although given the serious problems I have had with two of my AP students this year, that could change. Let me just add that early decision does no one any favors. The kid thinks they are in and nobody can touch them, and the teachers have to deal with attitude the rest of the term.