Letters of recommendation have aggravated me for more than 20 years. Today, as the spring admissions season draws to a close, I break my silence.
Studies reveal harmful disparities in letters of recommendation that favor white male applicants in everything from college admissions to medical residency.
Having been on every side of the LOR equation — requesting them, reading them, writing them, regarding them and disregarding them — I now call for an end to them. Not just at academic institutions, but at every institution that has historically discriminated against applicants on any basis besides merit. Shameless tributes to America’s longstanding commitment to inequity, letters of recommendation belong in the dustbin of history.
Like many great villains, these mandatory missives seem harmless enough at first glance. Decades before I began writing letters of recommendation, I was an ignorant and arrogant public high school student who genuinely believed that my favorite teachers would all be honored to write them for me.
To the eternal credit of Mr. Larry Schenck, Mr. Barry Peters and Ms. Marie Dzuris — who, to date, represent the three finest educators I’ve ever encountered — that’s exactly how they made me feel. So I never considered that they were also countless other students’ favorite teachers, or that they were wildly overworked and underpaid, or that we, their adoring pupils, were all effectively punishing them for being outstanding at their jobs.
By college, I was less ignorant and arrogant and more polite, so requesting recommendations quickly became a dreaded and dreadful chore. Finally considerate enough to recognize the burden of these loathsome letters, I didn’t want to trouble my esteemed professors with them.
But I aspired to go to law school, and as the daughter of immigrant physicians, I didn’t actually know any lawyers. Lacking the connections that my classmates used to land letters from esteemed judges and politicians, I approached my professors in the same pained I’m-so-sorry-to-bother-you-and-totally-understand-if-you’re-too-busy tone that I often hear from my own students today. Almost invariably, these overly apologetic students come from historically marginalized backgrounds.
As an Iranian American Muslim author, attorney and professor living with a disability, this is no surprise to me. Because I know letters of recommendation are precisely designed tools of oppression. Glaring testaments to our nation’s racist, sexist, classist, ableist, heterosexist, cisnormative, nepotistic power structures, these letters serve to disadvantage the already disadvantaged and privilege the already privileged.
Studies bear this out, revealing harmful disparities in letters of recommendation that favor white male applicants in everything from college admissions to medical residency placements to internships. The Covid-19 pandemic only promises to magnify such disparities, as marginalized individuals who already have fewer professional contacts also have fewer occasions to make such contacts while working from home.
To be sure, references can be valuable, and I’m not suggesting we do away with them entirely. But there’s a difference between asking applicants to provide contact information for potential references and requiring them to procure several formal letters of recommendation in order to even complete an application.
The former represents a request, and the latter represents a clear-cut barrier to entry favoring those who know the right people, often by virtue of nothing more than their family backgrounds. Abolishing letters of recommendation will help ensure that qualified candidates are not summarily precluded from applying for opportunities simply because they lack certain connections.
Today, I write and review piles of recommendations every year — and just spent an entire weekend scoring 50 such letters for nearly two dozen Master of Fine Arts applications. I know firsthand how different students approach obtaining them differently, how often their disparate approaches have less to do with their intellects than their identities and how biased the resulting contents and impacts can be.
Writing letters, I find that too many of my male students ask for them in a manner that feels more like a demand than a request. Often, they don’t ask at all, and I simply receive a random form letter from some university or employer noting an alarmingly prompt deadline. By contrast, too many of my female students — and notably, all of my nonbinary students thus far — spend so much time apologizing for their requests that they barely have any energy left to advocate for themselves.
Reading letters, I often find recommendations for gifted female writers focus more on their social skills than on their writing ability. I also consistently encounter letters for talented writers of color, first-generation college graduates and students with disabilities that focus more on their “bravery” and “heroism” in “overcoming obstacles” than on the clear merits of their literary craft.
Like so many of my students, I too have routinely sold myself short in the LOR department — not merely by apologizing more than advocating for myself, but also by outright abstaining from applying for countless positions, fellowships, residencies, awards and more. It’s not that I lack the courage or qualifications. It’s that I don’t want to inconvenience others with the inescapable recommendation requirements on virtually every application I’ve ever considered completing. Also, I resent having to rely on the validation of generous friends and colleagues who, for all their generosity, lack any connection to the ancestry that inspires and underlies the entirety of my writing and identity.
I long for a day when my work can speak for itself, when all the gatekeepers who’ve spent centuries ignoring people like me are finally ousted and when I can simply apply for whatever I want without having to ask anyone else to vouch for me. If our institutions genuinely want to evolve past tired tokenism toward true equity and inclusion, then banning letters of recommendation would be an excellent start.
So, America, I know you’re busy and I hate to bother you, but can we please bury this relic already?