In 2014, writer Julie Schumacher released a novel told entirely in letters of recommendation. Featuring a grasping academic protagonist desperate to maintain his professional standing, Dear Committee Members portrayed its chosen genre as fundamentally narcissistic and absurd—a campus peculiarity good for little besides favor-trading and self-promotion. The book, which landed on the bestseller list, launched two sequels, and won the Thurber Prize for American Humor, was perhaps most popular among professors themselves, who saw in its pages a funhouse-mirror reflection of their labor. Yes, Schumacher had exaggerated, but higher-ed Twitter that fall was rife with praise for the novel. Clearly, a difficult truth had been told at last.
The worst letters of recommendation are bad indeed: either puffed-up paeans to their authors’ own accomplishments or thin gruel implying a subject’s excellence without citing actual achievements. No doubt every professor is familiar with the timeworn superlatives of the latter category: “among the finest students,” “one of the hardest workers,” et cetera. The puerility of the first category may be seen in a note an academic friend of mine received not long ago: “[X] is the best scholar to come through this program since the publication of my prizewinning study of”—well, best not to say.
Like national economies, the letter-of-recommendation system is defined by scarcity. While truly superb or terrible applicants can be written about with ease, the middling middle requires far more letters than can be accommodated with any substance. What teacher hasn’t resorted to empty abstractions upon being asked to recommend a mediocre student or colleague? For that matter, how many harried educators keep on their desktop a letter-of-recommendation template, the better to discharge their obligations on the quick? In my own higher-ed days, I was a letter-writer of above-average care, beginning most missives afresh and at least trying to employ specifics. Looking through old files now, however, I am startled to find enough stock phrases to fill a dictionary of campus clichés. Oscar Wilde had it right: “It is always with the best intentions that the worst work is done.”
To the flaws already mentioned, we can add another, more contemporary, concern: that letters of recommendation sustain social injustices. In recent years, the Left has decided that the letters are racist relics that “reaffirm entrenched systems of inequity and bias.” If, as we are told, the workmanlike virtues prized by many letter-writers (for example, diligence and rationality) are themselves corrupt expressions of “whiteness,” then how could letters of recommendation be anything other than harmful?
Such thinking is, of course, as specious and un-American as the concomitant effort to do away with standardized-testing requirements, entrance exams, and grades. Yet it begins to show us why letters of recommendation, despite their imperfections, are valuable and worth fighting for. For leftists, any standards besides identity and ideological compliance are marked for elimination. This political reality isn’t the only reason to hope that letters of recommendation survive, but it’s a darn good one.
Other arguments for their continuation are also compelling. While merit, properly measured, ought to determine who is admitted or hired, there is such a thing as “fit.” Composed with a rudiment of cleverness, a letter of recommendation can warn under the guise of praise and cast doubt while seeming to applaud. As such, letters of recommendation are a last vestige of humanness in an academic system whose racial essentialism turns applicants of a given ethnicity into interchangeable widgets.
Consider, for instance, the following (hypothetical) assessment of a college senior applying to graduate school: “Casey is an energetic classmate who will not rest until her peers embrace her point of view.” Do you want this young woman in your program? If you’re a moderate Democrat, perhaps you do, though I rather doubt it. If you’re a conservative who has somehow snuck into academe, you would rather drink poison than see Casey on your roster. If you’re a progressive out to train an army of activists, the applicant in question is a prize. Without cruelty or exaggeration, the example tells an admissions committee much of what it needs to know.
True, not every scenario calls for coded language. Yet it is not unusual for a letter of recommendation to provide crucial information, supplementing the cold calculus of grade-point average (on the admissions side) or citation metrics (in faculty hiring) with contextualizing details. As every academician knows, not all perfect GPAs are created equal. If an almost-brilliant grad school applicant has been caring for a sick parent, I want to know about it. The same is true of a potential colleague with an alarming CV gap. If there’s a simple explanation, let’s hear it. The reader may protest that what I’m describing is the “holistic” admissions or hiring process beloved by the race-obsessed affirmative-action crowd. Not so. As conservatives have been saying for decades, race and ethnicity are increasingly poor proxies for life experience. A letter of recommendation can do work that a mere photograph can’t.
Finally, there is the matter of emerging jurisprudence. The Supreme Court has now ruled, in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard (and UNC), that colleges may no longer take race into account when awarding spots in their freshman classes. Even before the ruling, universities were scrambling to adjust to the looming new reality, for example by scrapping the standardized-testing requirements that allegedly disadvantage minorities. If, as seems likely, the coming admissions dispensation elevates socioeconomic status (which can be gamed) and personal essays (which chatbots will be writing, anyway), the letter of recommendation will become even more valuable as a sorting mechanism. Where else can decisionmakers see the unvarnished truth about applicants, thus perpetuating, in a small but significant way, a society based on merit?
Like most tools, letters of recommendation have their defects. They should be kept, all the same. Behind most applications are adults who know the real story in its complexity and fullness. Let’s hear what they have to say.