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.