John Rubadeau writes more than 100 letters of recommendation each year. The senior lecturer in the English Department says he writes such a high number because of the close relationships he builds with students, allowing him to write letters that reflect students’ personalities instead of canned assessments of candidates.
But at a university with more than 20,000 undergraduates, finding that ideal reference letter that says something genuine can be difficult.
Chemistry Lecturer Kathleen Nolta acknowledged this difficulty, admitting she doesn’t know all of the students who request recommendation letters from her. Still, she said she sympathizes with these students, many of whom will apply to medical school after leaving her class.
“I will not refuse to write for any student because some of them are only in large classes, so for those students, it’s almost impossible to get to know their professors,” she said.
If just obtaining a reference letter is hard, then it is even more difficult for a student to receive a recommendation that sets him or her apart from the crowd. Such obstacles beg the question as to whether the system of reference letters is still effective to our generation.
The lowdown on getting a letter
Obtaining a letter begins with the Reference Letter Service at the University’s Career Center. Every year, about 6,000 new letters are processed and 10,000 student files are sent to employers and graduate schools, according to the Career Center’s website.
A student opens a file with the RLS for a fee of $25. In turn, recommenders submit one copy of the student’s letter to the RLS, which is maintained for five years after the file is first opened. As long as students have a file, they can request that their letters be sent to any employer or graduate school of their choice.
Upon requesting a letter, students can choose to waive their right to view the letter, giving the writer greater reign to say what he or she really thinks about an applicant. Yet Linguistics Prof. Robin Queen said in recent years, letters of recommendation have been demonstrated to be artificially enthusiastic, presenting all applicants as though they were at the top of their class.
“It’s not the case that letters of recommendation really tell you, ‘Here’s the top two percent of candidates. Here’s the top five percent. Here’s the top 10 percent,’ ” she said. “They all tend to be, ‘Everyone’s in the top one percent.’ ”
Which can make it hard to distinguish between candidates. Queen said the competitive nature of graduate school admissions creates a system in which anything less than the top category looks bad, a mentality that follows the increasing trend of inflation among undergraduate grades.
“A C is actually an average grade,” Queen said. “But students see a C as basically failing. So that same shift has happened in recommendation letters.”
Queen also said studies done by Profs. Frances Trix and Carolyn Psenka of Wayne State University have shown that both letter writers and letter readers may have unintentional cognitive biases, which could lead to negative repercussions for one applicant group over another.
The paper, “Exploring the Color of Glass: Letters of Recommendation for Female and Male Medical Faculty,” studied people applying for academic positions in medical schools. Recommenders talked about men’s research abilities and women’s teaching and nurturing abilities, indicating an unintentional gender bias. This goes for ethnicity as well as gender, Queen said.
Those evaluating and reading letters and resumes may also harbor an unintentional bias.
She gave the example of a different study done by professors at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology and the University of Chicago Graduate school of Business, in which identical fake resumes were sent to employers, with the difference that one set had male names and the other had female names. The study showed that those with male names were more likely to be hired.
This same study was replicated with ethnically marked names and stereotypically white names. The ethnically marked names got fewer callbacks than their generically white counterparts.
“The basic story there is that this is not an intentional bias exactly, but there is a kind of cultural bias around this kind of thing,” Queen said.
Are letters even relevant?
Many graduate and professional schools require two to five letters with a combination of academic and non-academic sources.
According to English Lecturer Cody Walker, a former graduate admissions officer, “hyperbole is the order of the day” when it comes to letters, so admissions committees must determine whether the recommender worked from a template or if something special about the student caught the professor’s eye.
Recommendation letters also don’t enjoy the cachet they once did.
RLS supervisor Mariella Mecozzi explained that while letters are still important for graduate and professional school applications and jobs in academia, they are not as important when it comes to other jobs.
“Jobs can be very specific by nature,” she said.
She pointed out that a phone reference allows the employer to get the specific feedback they’re looking for.
“Your typical undergraduate student … would be better advised to have three to five people that agree to speak on their behalf,” Mecozzi said.
The benefits of an old-fashioned letter
For students, contacting teachers who may not even remember your face is uncomfortable and ineffective. And as a teacher, it may seem like a thankless task of writing letter after letter for students you could barely know.
But for many at the University, letters do actually make a difference in the grand scheme of things.
Though Nolta admits the process can be cumbersome, she said it’s an essential component of a student’s time as an undergraduate.
“Is it an obstacle? Yes. Is it a good growth experience? Absolutely,” she said, adding that it encourages interaction among teachers and students.
LSA senior Alex Myong agrees. Applying to medical schools, Myong said he was forced to reach outside his comfort zone and make connections with professors he could have otherwise overlooked.
“It kind of forces you to find professors who fill requirements instead of the professors you’re closest with,” Myong said.
For Rubadeau, letters are vital.
“That’s the joy of life, to get to know people and become friends with people,” Rubadeau said. “If I have a chance to help someone out in his or her career, then I’ll help him or her out. And I enjoy that.”
Walker bemoaned the process but added that he finds satisfaction in writing letters.
While a simple phone call could be quicker and easier, the act of writing — of actually sitting down with a student in mind and crafting a letter on his or her behalf — is a bonding experience for both the student and the professor, Walker said.
“Being about to do it, I hate,” Walker said. “Having it in my calendar feels oppressive in the way that sitting down to write a Ph.D. dissertation felt oppressive. But actually doing it is usually kind of interesting and having done it is great.”
There’s a pay-it-forward mentality among professors across departments, Walker said.
After all, none of them would be where they are today if it weren’t for professors writing them letters.
So the tradition persists.
“I think there’s some sense of ethical or karmic obligation to keep it going as long as it’s still the system,” Walker said.