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Recommending Oneself To College

Schools must desist from outsourcing college recommendation letters to students and parents. Doing so is not leveling the playing field; merely short-changing America’s esteemed educational institutions.

Credit: Getty Images
Credit: Getty Images

While the country is debating two important higher education stories - the preposterous idea of forgiving student loan debt and the upcoming affirmative action case at the Supreme Court against Harvard and the University of North Carolina - a little-known change is taking hold in American high schools.

The issue relates to how high schools write recommendation letters for students applying to colleges. A recommendation is supposed to reflect the honest, professional opinion about the student that the author has formed through direct interactions over a sustained period. When the letter is genuine, it humanizes the student beyond a set of numbers, grades, and certificates, providing valuable context. An honest referral — even if not all positive — can often make the difference in a candidate's application for admission to colleges.

Generally, three letters from high school go out to colleges. The letter from the high school counselor represents the views of the school administration. Two letters go out from teachers, who can comment on the individual growth of a student, based on observations through an entire high school year. All three serve as crucial inputs for colleges to evaluate a student’s merit and fit.

But schools around the country in competitive districts, including Chantilly High School in Fairfax County in Northern Virginia, and Katy Independent Schools, in Katy, Texas, are resorting to a new trick largely unknown to colleges. They are requiring students to submit unverified "self-assessments" in a detailed questionnaire that mimics a college application. From the content presented, counselors then write recommendation letters as though these opinions reflect their original assessments of the student.

For instance, the Chantilly High School "Counselor Rec-Packet" is sent to every high school senior with a stern warning at the top: "Note that the amount of effort you put into this packet will reflect the amount of effort I will be able to put into your letter of recommendation."

Many questions in the packet are ripe for gaming by enterprising students who can vastly exaggerate their profiles, knowing well that counselors can never verify the responses. They could gain admission to top schools on the strength of the "counselor's recommendation" when the counselor really didn't know much about the student.

  • What three points would you like me to highlight in your letter of recommendation? Relate specific anecdotes to explain.
  • Does any specific attribute, quality, or skill distinguish you from others?
  • Tell me about a time when you struggled with something and failed. How did you respond?
  • Describe an incident in which you demonstrated strong character (loyalty, integrity, self-discipline, kindness, commitment to high ideals, caring for others, etc.)

The packet also contains a questionnaire for parents: List 3 adjectives that best describe your child and provide examples, anecdotes, etc. The examples are the best part! Or this one: Describe a recent incident in which your child demonstrated strong character.

In the intensely-competitive college admissions world, forgive us for suspecting that not all parents would honestly describe their children if doing so would be at their children's cost.

Top American colleges and universities have attained a preeminent position in higher education because of their reliance on subjective and objective measures to evaluate students before granting them admission. Most colleges in other countries use only objective criteria, such as grades and test scores, to admit students.

But during the last few years, American colleges have been increasingly moving away from objective metrics to meet the Left's demands for social justice. The Left has consistently complained that underrepresented students of color, with few financial means, cannot afford test prep services that wealthy families can easily engage, making college admission testing unfair.

The truth, as we said in February is that Test-Optional Policies Are Unleashing Havoc On Students. As colleges evaluate students primarily on essays and resumes, the advantage, ironically, moves to families with adequate financial resources to retain professionals to review these essays and, in some cases, even ghost-write them.

Recommendation letters have remained the sole supporting document where teachers and other high school staff independently evaluate students and directly communicate their impressions to colleges after receiving FERPA waivers. When a student waives their FERPA rights, counselors can freely comment about the student without the risk of being sued for expressing a professional opinion.

Composing content for student recommendation letters should not be outsourced to students or parents. Self-written recommendation letters are inherently unjust and unethical. Further, counselors should not use such student-self-written recommendation letters as their creations when they transmit them to a college. Doing so defeats the very purpose of recommendation letters and further dilutes the vaunted college admissions process for which America has won laurels worldwide.

Rajkamal Rao is a columnist and a member of the tippinsights editorial board. He is an American entrepreneur and writes the WorldView column for the Hindu BusinessLine, India's second-largest financial newspaper, on the economy, politics, immigration, foreign affairs, and sports.


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