Feature image from www.uwmedicine.org

Shannon McCoy was one of Missouri’s best high school swimmers. Her athleticism coupled with decent grades made her a top choice for several colleges, and she ultimately accepted a scholarship to swim for Colorado State University in 2009.

But Shannon’s college plans were shattered after CSU received her counselor’s letter of recommendation. The university rescinded its scholarship offer, leaving Shannon stuck — she had already turned down all her other offers. Suddenly, her only option was to attend CSU at full price. In response, Shannon’s parents sued the school district over the counselor’s allegedly-negative recommendation of their daughter.

On top of personal essays, transcripts, and lists of extracurriculars, many schools ask for one or more letters of recommendation – outside evaluations of the applicant meant to provide the type of information students aren’t trusted to self-report. Top schools ostensibly use letters of rec to determine cultural and academic fit, but are counselor and teacher evaluations actually a reliable diagnostic?

To an outsider, the most obvious use of letters of recommendation might be to screen out applicants who look great on paper, but don’t play well with their fellow students. However, in a 2000 study by Michael Ryan and David Martinson, over half the instructors surveyed reported that letters of recommendation were frequently embellished due to a fear of legal action. With several actual and threatened lawsuits making headlines since then, this effect has likely only intensified.

Although millions of recommendations are written and submitted on behalf of college hopefuls each year without incident, many teachers prefer to avoid even the chance of litigation. A popular forensics teacher in Portland instituted a strict “invitation-only” letter of rec policy after a formal complaint was filed against a colleague over a recommendation. While this strategy preserves the integrity of recommendations, many teachers are unable or unwilling to follow suit; Ryan and Martinson found that over two-thirds of their respondents submitted undeservedly-positive evaluations of students.

Admissions staff have observed the effects of “recommendation inflation” firsthand; one Caltech application reader reported that, out of hundreds of evaluations, she read only one that could be considered truly negative. It seems clear that letters of recommendation have largely stopped serving any sort of elimination purpose – but are they still a reliable tool in other contexts?

An incredibly positive letter can convince admissions committees to overlook minor flaws in the rest of an application. For example, an essay about a passion for a subject will raise a red flag for readers if that subject doesn’t consistently appear throughout the applicant’s transcript and extracurriculars. However, a letter from a teacher corroborating the student’s passion will go a long way towards laying those concerns to rest. Similarly, a student with a rocky academic record early on could be more likely to get admitted if a recommender writes about how much the student’s work ethic and dedication have improved since freshman year.

Unfortunately, there’s considerable variance at this end of the recommendation spectrum. An overworked teacher is unlikely to have the time to write more than a generically-positive recommendation for the majority of their students. Thus, applicants from better-funded schools are likely to receive more effective recommendations on top of also having access to higher-quality instruction and a broader menu of courses and extracurriculars, on average.

Letter of Rec Grid


For strong students, letters of recommendation seem to simply compound existing inequalities present in the college admissions system. And with application lists steadily increasing – roughly a third of today’s seniors apply to seven or more schools, compared to just 18% in 2006 – rushed recommendations are a growing concern.

And recommendation inflation is present here, as well. While many teachers may balk at writing a negative review of a poor student, they seem to have no such qualms about writing a glowing review of a decent, yet unexceptional, student. Even the Common App’s ostensibly-quantitative evaluation grids show signs of rampant exaggeration; application readers at highly competitive schools report that it’s not uncommon to see check marks down the entire “One of the top few I’ve encountered” column, an option only added after the “Outstanding” column became oversaturated.

Ryan and Martinson suggest that the same mentality that leads to grade inflation – the worry that harsh grading will unfairly disadvantage one’s students – may also be at play in the recommendation process. If some teachers are treating evaluations as a vehicle to send their favorite students to good schools, rather than as a tool that admissions teams can use to objectively evaluate applicants, the admissions process becomes stacked against the students whose recommenders stay honest.

Case in point: Shannon McCoy supposedly had her scholarship revoked due to a handful of “below average” marks, even though it’s highly unlikely that any student is truly above average in every category. It seems that CSU was expecting an inflated evaluation.

Schools could combat this issue by making letters of recommendation optional rather than mandatory. If teachers could decline a letter request without rendering a student’s application incomplete, more teachers might opt to say nothing rather than lie about problematic students. And with fewer letters to write, each individual letter could be given more thought.

Letter of Rec Papers


As the University of California system recognizes, it’s unlikely that letters of recommendation will change admissions outcomes for the vast majority of students (although several of the UCs will request optional recommendations from borderline applicants). With UC Berkeley and UCLA ranking first and second among public universities in the US News & World Report, it’s clear that recommendations aren’t critical to the admissions process even at top universities.

Some schools, such as University of Washington, have taken this line of thinking a step further and eliminated recommendations altogether. According to the UW Office of Admissions, “We used to accept letters of recommendation, but we don’t anymore. They weren’t very helpful to us.” University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is another example of a high-ranked university that rejects letters of recommendation. While recommendations are still mandatory at all top private schools, a close look at the data might convince more admissions teams to relax this policy.

Shannon’s CSU scholarship was eventually reinstated after a lengthy appeals process. Although the university didn’t publicly state that her counselor’s recommendation caused the erroneous revocation, it seems to be the most likely culprit. Ultimately, we need to acknowledge that the current letter of recommendation has ceased to serve its original purpose in college admissions, and start developing more effective instruments for matching students to schools.