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Are Letters of Recommendation Pointless?

Authored By: 
George Higgins, Headmaster

As the head of a high school, I read and write more than my fair share of letters of recommendation and I have frequently found myself asking if what I’m composing, or what I’m reviewing, carries enough importance to merit the amount of time and energy that goes into it.

Yes, there are weaker and stronger letters, but have you ever read a recommendation that didn’t recommend the person? Our society has become so sensitive to legal actions that I wonder if anyone really says all that they honestly feel when asked to write a letter for a person who you know is not exemplary. If that’s the situation, then what is the usefulness of these endorsements when their accuracy is questionable, at best?

I recently had to retrieve the academic records for a former student of ours who graduated in 1966. The head of the school had written him a recommendation letter, which concluded with the following statement: “On his good days, his interest can be engaged and his intelligence stimulated.  During the last five months, his bad days have far outnumbered the good ones.”  Would anyone today really be as candid? And if we’ve learned not to be candid, straightforward, and genuinely sincere, how much does a letter of recommendation really help you learn about the applicant? Often, it speaks more about the writing skills of the recommender than it does about the skills of the person about whom it is being written.

There has to be a better way! Whether you’re a potential employer or an admissions counselor, there are clearly other factors at your disposal that would be better indicators of the qualities you seek in an applicant.

Why not take these into consideration:

  • Standardized Verbal Test Scores:  Compare these results with the quality of an applicant’s essay. Do you think that the person who took the test is the same person who wrote that essay?
  • Clear Focus: Are there evident areas of concentration that would reflect a candidate’s interests and abilities?  Many inferences can be made about a candidate if you pay attention to certain indicators.
  • Syntax: Are the application and essay completely free of grammatical errors? We can all make a mistake when working our way through daily emails, but a person has all the time needed to make an application perfect. Mistakes say a lot about the work ethic of the person who is trying to put his/her best foot forward.
  • Presentation: Is the visual impression of the packet that you’ve been given neat, clean, and well-organized? The application packet is what gives the first impression about an applicant and it is a reflection of his/her attention to detail and organizational skills.
  • Authenticity: Does anything contained in the information you’ve been given show originality and creativity? Often, the interests people express are the interests of almost everyone. Who doesn’t like to travel or see a movie?

There are so many more subtle factors that are far more enlightening than a letter of recommendation that is filled with clichés and aggrandizements. Some of the weakest candidates I’ve met came with some of the warmest letters I’ve ever read. I think it’s time we focused on other features when evaluating an applicant. If all letters of recommendation are, to some degree, good, then what’s the point? Is everyone either “pretty good” or “really good”?  If only that were true…