The Corner

Education

Junk on Fancy Letterhead

That’s how Indiana University professor Fabio Rojas describes academic letters of recommendation (LoRs). In today’s Martin Center piece, he argues that higher education ought to abolish them.

Rojas writes, “Professors write so many letters that older, more established professors have all kinds of tricks for managing the massive number of recommendation requests, which results in unreliable letters. Some only write letters for “A” students or their favorites. Other instructors write the same letter over and over again because they simply don’t know what to write for the fifteenth law school applicant who got a B+ in their course.”

He links to research showing that LoRs have severe problems of bias and low predictive ability.

What to do? “The best thing,” Rojas argues,  “would be simply to abolish them and evaluate students on things like grade point averages, standardized tests, and writing samples. Those measures are imperfect but, unlike letters of recommendation, the research on those practices show that they have some value. For example, multiple reviews find that the Graduate Record Exam predicts graduate school grades, though it does so modestly.”

The trouble is that the use of LoRs is a deep tradition throughout academia and it’s hard to change a tradition, even when the case against it is strong.

Rojas concludes with a few helpful recommendations: “First, when evaluating students for admission to programs, focus on what students have done. Look at the courses they take. Look at their writing sample. Just ignore letters, or quickly scan them for red flags. Second, in writing your own letters for students, you can save time and effort by writing shorter and more focused letters. Long, complex letters rarely matter. Finally, gently direct your colleagues toward the substantial body of research showing the problems with letters of recommendation.”

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

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