by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Fabio Rojas writes for the Martin Center about the utility of letters of recommendation.
Every year, professors around the world write millions of letters of recommendation. They write letters for admission to graduate schools, law schools, and medical schools. They write letters for tenure cases to help colleagues with their promotions. They write letters for students who wish to study abroad. They write letters for fellowships and scholarships. They write letters for summer workshop programs and for graduate student research grants.
Surely, this massive effort must be justified. If we ask our faculty to write these letters every year and for nearly every program, there must be some evidence that they provide valuable information.
That, however, is false.
The peer-reviewed research on letters of recommendation, called “LoRs” by scholars, shows that they possess very little value. These letters are junk on fancy letterhead.
My argument may strike readers as strange and counter-intuitive. Wouldn’t a professor be in a good position to know a student and write a letter? In theory, yes. Professors are in a better position to evaluate a student than, say, their neighbor. But the practice of letter writing is much different than the theory.
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.