Letters of Recommendation: The Missing Link


The key to a more fair college admissions process is letters of recommendation, Gauri Patwardhan argues.

Imagine being the admissions officer for Stanford. Sitting on your desk are two files, one from student A and the other for student B. There is one spot available, and the only information you have that separates the two students is their GPA.

Student A has a perfect GPA, while student B has mediocre grades. Which student would you pick? Knowing the golden rule of the college admissions process: select students with the most caliber in their field of interest. 

From a pure merit standpoint, student A seems more deserving of admission to an elite college. It also appears that student B is less academically focused, and thus will likely not take full advantage of higher education.

However, assume student B faced much adversity throughout their high school journey, whether it be in the form of poverty, loss of a parent or something else. As such, student B worked extremely hard to understand the material, but adversity they faced led their grades to slip. Student A, however, hired tutors to help them prepare for tests, and in turn did well in their classes. So, even though student A took less efforts than student B, they received higher grades. Provided with this additional information, it seems as though student B could be as good — if not better — a student as A and, thus, student B is equally deserving of higher education at an elite college. 

One cannot decipher such details about the lives of students A and B through grades alone, as they provide only a measure of ability as constrained by adversity. Mathematically speaking, that translates to the following equation: grades = f(a1, a2) = a1 / a2, where a1 is a measure of ability and a2 a measure of adversity. As one can see, it is hard to discern a student’s ability given only their grades. Information about ability, however, is critical for evaluating an applicant.

The solution? Letters of recommendations from teachers. Over the year, teachers learn much about their students and can provide a more accurate picture of a student’s abilities. They can, for example, let colleges know if a student’s poor grades are a result of inattention in class or family problems or sickness or something else. Teachers can also answer important questions about the student’s character: Does the student learn for the sake of learning? Do they collaborate well with others? Are they willing to help their classmates? Answers to such questions can provide a much clearer picture of who the student is as a person and how they will fit into the college.

Critics may point out that students who are introverted and/or have many responsibilities do not currently interact with teachers, and hence letters of recommendation from their teachers will not provide a holistic view of the students. This is a valid point; however, relationships are invaluable in life. Globally, countries win (or lose) wars based on what relations they have with other countries. As a concrete example, Germany lost World War I and II in part because of their poor relationship with the US. In the workspace, people get a promotion based on the relations they build with their coworkers and bosses. As such, building relationships is an important skill that students must learn in order to succeed in life, and what better place to cultivate this skill than the classroom?

Currently, letters of recommendation don’t have significant influence over the admissions process. However, once they gain the necessary weight, students will have good motivation to interact with teachers and build those relationships. This will not only help students in the admissions process but will impart the necessary skills for later success in careers and life.

Furthermore, it is important to note that students are not pressured to share information they are not comfortable with sharing. If a student is comfortable sharing personal matters, like the loss of a parent, with the admissions committee — who are complete strangers — then they should have no problem sharing such information with their teachers. If they are not comfortable sharing these experiences with the admissions committee, there is no reason for them to share this information with the teachers. 

Thus, students should remember that they only have to communicate with teachers what they would like the admissions committee to know about them.

Lastly, dissenters may argue that personal statements — another factor in the holistic admission process — can overcome any lacuna in use of GPA. However, the ability of personal statements to portray an applicant is largely constrained by the applicant’s writing abilities. Students who are not native English speakers may particularly struggle with these essays. Also, nothing stops a student from lying on the personal statements. How can the university verify if the applicant actually spent their summer at an outreach program in Mexico? How can they verify if the applicant truly faced any adversity like abuse? Colleges do not have the time nor the resources to fact check every applicant’s essays. The student’s words must be regarded as truth.

In the end, it is the letters of recommendations, not grades, and not personal statements, that can give an accurate picture of the applicant while detailing the applicant’s ability and adversity.  The impact of letters of recommendations on the whole admission process is minuscule today, and this needs to change.