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IN MY OPINION

It’s time to rethink letters of recommendation

They’re a waste of time, with little evidence they make a difference in decision-making.

By RIMA WILKES & HOWARD RAMOS | DEC 07 2018

Writing letters of recommendation is a routine exercise for most faculty. Applications for graduate schools, scholarships, grants, awards and jobs all require letters, and writing each one takes precious time away from other work. There is little evidence that they make a difference in decision making and much evidence to show they contribute to inequities. Maybe it is time to ask, what is the point in all this?

We might start by thinking about the pre-information-age origins of reference letters. Essentially, they were used to show that a person in the profession vouches for the candidate. Individuals writing and reading the letters usually knew, or at least were known to, each other. A letter of reference would have been necessary because other means of communication were not options. Publication was less of a metric and at the time it was difficult to send transcripts between institutions.

Today, many people continue to hold reference letters in high esteem. The argument is often made that they offer valuable context to sterile and generic metrics, like grades, numbers of publications, awards and other “measurables.” They are said to help assessors better understand special circumstances, qualitative context and aspects missed by ‘hard’ metrics.

The problem is that writing and reading letters uses up an extraordinary amount of time. To write a strong letter of support, one must know the student or colleague in detail, read their work, scour their CV, and give unique examples to write an original and personal letter. For some competitions this literally can take hours. For faculty, the time spent doing this could be spent in meaningful dialogue, reading, writing or pursuing grants, not to mention mentoring students. For students, every hour spent chasing down faculty for letters keeps them away from studying or working on other projects. In many cases, letters are needed at the last minute, adding an extra level of stress. In both cases, we also ought to consider that, for each application, multiple faculty are writing letters for the same competitions, amplifying the time spent and stress felt.

Letters also take time to process for members of committees that need to read them. Increasingly, competitions have hundreds of applicants. Few of these applications will make the shortlist or get to the point where the detailed information and deep scrutiny that might be provided in letters is needed.

Let us illustrate how much time letters take away from other work by examining the typical academic job application. In larger schools, a single job ad can have 100 or more applicants. Each ad asks candidates for three letters of reference and each letter is two to four pages single-spaced. For 100 applications, that totals somewhere between 600 to 1,200 pages of reading.

All this effort might be warranted if letters really provided useful information not otherwise available. But is this really the case? Despite all the time and effort put into writing letters, the sheer volume of them means that most reviewers develop systems to parse information quickly. Usually only a handful of applications in the large pool of applicants is fully scrutinized – those that are hard to score by other methods and that are close to being considered. This means that most letters are never even read.

When they are read, our experience is that most letters look and sound the same. Very few people write a bad letter, or even an honest one. There is intense competition for awards, for entrance to graduate programs, for postdocs, for faculty positions and for promotion. Why would professors write a negative or less-than-glowing letter given this context? Most people, if they don’t think highly of the person, will just say no to a letter request.

More troubling is that research shows that letters of reference can maintain old boys’ clubs, privileging those who are well-networked and therefore leading to bias. Race, class, gender and nationality interact to shape the networks of who writes letters, who builds up the nerve to ask for them to be written in the first place, and how letters are written once a faculty member accepts to write one. Studies show that the content of letters is far too often biased against women, racialized people and others who are outsiders to the power structures of universities.

So, what can be done? We could start by requesting fewer letters. In most situations it is more effective to simply ask for names of referees and their contact information. This would limit the letter writing to only those who are being seriously considered, saving countless hours of work for everyone. Or why not simply stop asking for letters altogether?

Rima Wilkes is a professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia and former president of the Canadian Sociology Association. Howard Ramos is associate dean of research in the faculty of social sciences and a professor of sociology at Dalhousie University, and is also a former president of the Canadian Sociology Association.

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  1. Dan / December 7, 2018 at 09:55

    I agree. I am a UK based academic and it is common practice here to only request letters of recommendation after a candidate has been offered the job, not before. Considering academic jobs can get anything up to 300+ applicants per post, it really is wasting a lot of peoples time to have 3 sets of letters of recommendation for each application. I also think that because applicants choose who will write their reference letters – they’re not likely to choose someone who will write something negative, particularly if it is the applicant who collates the letter and submits it with the application (I also find this practice bizarre – it’s much better for the referee to submit a reference directly in the knowledge they can be more candid!).

  2. Traveling Professor / December 10, 2018 at 12:46

    Strongly agree with you. Letters of reference should not be asked until at least shortlisted. It save everyone’s time. As above mentioned, many UK universities only ask reference after job offered. This is definitely an efficient way.

    However, in humanities and social science fields in North America, many universities still require the references at the very beginning which counts as a completed application. What a waste for everyone’s time.

  3. Alana / December 11, 2018 at 08:12

    Hear hear! Indeed, there are so many parts of applications that are onerous to both the applicant, the many highly qualified personnel supporting the applicant, and the evaluators. Across the board we should be moving to a simplified system, whereby minimum information is used to identify a shortlist who are then invited to submit a full application. While some may argue that this may lengthen the job search or granting process, it likely will have no impact on the timeline given how much lighter the reading and evaluation burden will be for the selection committees.

  4. Aaron Slepkov / December 12, 2018 at 13:43

    Amen.

    A related question: given that most letters are not particularly honest. What’s your experience with the occasionally honest one? Let’s say it is a positive letter but also honest. Would that advantage the candidate or disadvantage them (in your experience). I’m really curious for the crowd’s experiences here.

  5. David Newman / December 12, 2018 at 14:24

    As a former headhunter (executive recruitment consultant) and now seemingly a perpetual sessional, I wholeheartedly agree. Asking for reference letters upfront as part of an application is MEANINGLESS as anyone who gives half a thought to this would only ask people who will give a good reference. And it is a total time-wasting exercise. I hate having to ask people on my bank of referees to write yet another reference for a job application (or worse, a sessional teaching appointment). I have been asking them to do this for years now and so I’m sure that there is only something generic sent that they have on file.

    This seems to be a pointless exercise, as reference writers are less likely to be fully candid in writing, than they would be in a conversation. The question needs to be asked as to what is the value of a reference and what point in the process should they be sought. My feeling (and I have both written a lot of references for students going into graduate studies and checked a lot of references as a headhunter) is that the purpose of a reference is to check that there aren’t any hidden problems that don’t otherwise get exposed in the job interview process. They should only be done at the very end when you intend to make an offer to a candidate, and they should be done as a conversation with the referees rather than in writing. Someone is much more likely to be candid in a conversation, and you are able to explore further if there are possible areas that raise questions. You will also get a more honest response if you are about to appoint someone to a position and you are asking someone their opinion at that point.

    I will frequently include the phrase “references available upon request” in applications if I think I can get away with it without it negatively affecting my application. Changing the norm will take a long time, but everyone reading this can contribute to taking a step towards this. Going forward, I will include a link to this article in the list of references for future positions I am applying for.

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