Why those recommendation form checkboxes are meaningless

Choosing the next graduate class is one of the most important things we do besides choosing new faculty. We have a fairly typical application form with two essays by the student, three recommendations by faculty that know them, standardized test scores, and grades. With this information we need to decide what the students are interested in, how passionate they are about those interests, how talented they are in pursuing those interests, and how good their fit is with what we have to offer. Are we good at this imperfect process? Perhaps, if you judge by the success of the students we have admitted. But we cannot know what the others might have done. We cannot know who is just inexperienced in the academic tradition and didn’t know what to put down. But ours is a tiny program, this year aiming for only a handful of acceptances, not even one per faculty member, so we do our best.

I feel it is important to remember what we cannot do and what the letter writers cannot do and that is either predict who will do well or measure the soul of a person. Yet our amateurish forms ask the recommenders to do just that. It grates every year. ticksrecommendA form with tick boxes done by different people with different pools to judge and different biases on different applicants is likely to have so many problems as to be worthless. Yet professor after professor happily ticks off those boxes as if they were little gods, or idols.

If these are the things we want to know about, have people write about them in their letters. They could give an example of independent functioning, for example. Then we could distinguish someone who did a taught assay on their own from someone who did a whole project alone, or who came up with a big solution. Those tick boxes don’t let us discriminate.

Some of the categories are more amenable for judgement than others. They talk the most about Motivation and Industry, I suppose. They hardly ever know anything about Understanding of the Fundamentals of her/his major, of course. Who came up with this list anyway? Surely no social scientist was consulted. It isn’t a bad list in terms of things that would be nice to know. It is just that tick boxes on a general form will not actually tell us anything about them.

The one that makes me most uncomfortable and even upset is Overall intellectual ability. You seriously think someone can judge this? You think that across many advisers, many students, the judgement will be so uniform that we can use this? Of course not.

You do not have to use those columns. You can simply check the top box for everyone. But don’t forget to write a letter that makes the person come alive with what they do and what they have discovered. Overall, I find these letters are better at that than are the letters I read for faculty candidates.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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2 Responses to Why those recommendation form checkboxes are meaningless

  1. Thanks for writing this, Joan! As a high school teacher, this certainly resonates with me. I teach a hybrid IB/AP Biology course at one of the top rated schools in my state and thus the students I teach apply to the top rated colleges and universities like Wash U. We’ve just endured the first week of early decision and early action announcements and the drama that unfolds among my students is heart-breaking: How did so-and-so get into such-and-such university and I didn’t? What does that say about me and all my hard work? For me the news is particularly interesting this year. My niece, who attends high school in a different state was accepted early decision to Wash U. and we all are extremely proud of her and excited for her. Wash U. made a great choice. However, one of my best students ever did a summer research program at Wash U., loved it, applied to attend and study biology (a different program as my niece), and was not admitted. Indeed, I thought she was a slam dunk. I unarbitrarily checked all the right boxes, then wrote a glowing letter where I described her as one of the best science communicators I have ever had in my 24 years of teaching. I described how I had been invited to give a talk at a local university about getting students to think like scientists, and then recruited this young woman to give part of the talk with me (it took some convincing of the symposium committee). She then stunned the audience–and arguably overshadowed me–(I was so proud!) with her part of the talk.
    What do we say to these students of ours? I have told my student that she will indeed be accepted by a great school or many more, choose the best fit (in the words of my Father-in-Law, “Make a decision, then make it the right decision.”), and go and do amazing things. But the acceptance process is such a mystery to teachers and applicants. It’s almost as if, at some point, the admissions officers pin all the best applications to the wall and simply throw darts at them. How else can they choose from such a great group of potential undergrads? Of course, as you argue, they cannot depend on the checked boxes and their built-in uncertainty. But what does this process tell our students about who they are among their peers? They get absolutely no feedback.
    I know you probably aren’t involved in admitting undergrads, but I’d love to hear some answers if you have them. Perhaps there aren’t any.
    Again, thanks for putting this out there! I’m sharing it around.

    • Thanks for writing. I was quite involved a long time ago in undergraduate admissions when I was at Rice University, so I do have some perspective on it. And I have three kids, all grown, all got into college. I am not involved in admissions at Wash U. From the university’s perspective, they try to put together a diverse class in all possible ways so students will learn from each other most effectively. It is absolutely true that at these kinds of schools the decisions can look really arbitrary. The thing is, what college you go to is important, but not that important. There is life after college. The student you wrote about will shine wherever she goes because of what is inside her. She will find a great program, I’m sure. For me, the choice was basically Michigan or Michigan State. I applied to Wash U and a couple other such schools, got in, but couldn’t see spending the money. I got that small school experience by getting into a research lab and by going to Michigan’s fantastic Biological Station (open to all) for the summer. But I digress. I would count your letter a lot. I look for passion in students, coupled with expertise, but the latter is much more easily attained. I feel like life is a series of challenges and what is important is how you respond to them, how you find others to help and ways to make a difference. A good college will help with that, but there are lots of them. Arizona State is exciting and innovative. My youngest was transformed by Trinity University in San Antonio where he studied environmental biology and did 3 years of research. My daughter became a scholar at Wellesley and is now a professor at U Chicago after 4 great years at U Memphis. My middle son embraced acting and theater and got a mentor for life at Oregon State. All my kids found something wonderful at their colleges because they took the time to get to know themselves and to find something they could do. My youngest also did something else I wish more Americans did: he took a gap year before college at a field station in Ecuador. I could tell lots of stories about how that changed him, but really they are his stories. Thanks for being a teacher, and a teacher who cares! Check out some of my video resources http://joanstrassmann.org/Joan_Strassmann/Home.html

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