By Safiya Johnson
This article appears in the Winter 2022 edition (Number 253) of the Journal of College Admission
Oh, letters of recommendation—the bane of existence for many adults and students every admission cycle.
I have written a dozen letters of recommendation for my former interns and several more for my Class of 2021 seniors as a postsecondary counselor. As the number of letters of recommendation that I had to write grew, the more I relied on templates to introduce my school and a student’s academic record to admission counselors. I also relied on student intake forms, or brag sheets, to quickly get to know my students. (If you’re seeking inspiration for a brag sheet template, see examples A, B, and C. And know that leading a lesson on filling in the brag sheet and providing examples for students can only help improve the quality of brag sheets they submit.)
Thanks to my years of experience as an admission counselor, I felt confident in my ability to discern what makes a strong letter of recommendation and how to write them well. I spent years reading between the lines to identify warning signs and faint praise.
Unfortunately, I have seen my fair share of letters of recommendation that raised concerns about the learning environment students found themselves in. Letters that hint at racial or gendered bias and barriers within the school. Why did this Black male student have to advocate for years to take Advanced Placement classes? Why is it this young woman had to advocate to be in a STEM cohort? Why was their ability questioned before they could enroll in a curriculum that is heavily favored by admission counselors?
I am ashamed to admit that although I have led approximately 10 letters of recommendation writing workshops as an admission counselor, none of those sessions explicitly touched on gender or racial bias. I hope to right that wrong by sharing how writers can check their implicit and explicit biases during the writing process.
But first, what is implicit bias and what patterns have researchers found?
Implicit biases are unconscious stereotypes and assumptions that lead people to favor those who share their same identities (or in-group members). For instance, why do people favor men over women for certain jobs, assume Asians are foreigners, and associate white people with positive adjectives and attributes more quickly than Black people? These associations are the result of socialization in a gendered and racialized world. These lead to real-world discrimination and privilege-hoarding. For instance, who is admitted into programs, hired, and promoted leads to racialized and gendered gaps in wages and educational attainment.
Research on graduate school, academic jobs, and college admission letters of recommendation have found varying degrees of gender and racial bias that impact admission and hiring outcomes for marginalized people. For instance, letters of recommendation are typically several words longer for male applicants. Writers usually use more communal adjectives (i.e., nurturing, kind, warm, polite, helpful) to describe female applicants than agentic adjectives (i.e., competent, independent, ambitious). Additionally, letters for female and racial minority applicants typically use more grindstone adjectives (i.e., hardworking, careful, dedicated, thorough) to describe them, implying they possess less natural ability or talent (i.e., genius, brilliant, talented, capable).
To help writers catch gender bias, some universities and organizations have created gender bias calculators, which you can find here.
However, I argue that the best way to catch instances of gender and racial bias in your writing is to compare the letters that you write for similarly able white male applicants to white female applicants and to male and female minority applicants. Conduct quality control checks before you hit submit.
Additionally, school counselors—who often guide students on when, how, and whom to ask for a letter of recommendation—should lead discussions on gender and racial bias. If and when you invite a university or nonprofit partner to lead a recommendation writing workshop, be sure to ask them how they will discuss gender and racial bias in their workshop. If they will not, develop your own training that touches on these sensitive topics.
According to NACAC’s 2019 State of College Admission report, 54 percent of colleges place considerable or moderate importance on letters of recommendation when making an admission decision. A lot (i.e., program admission and scholarship dollars) is on the line. I can recall several times when I wrote on a reader sheet, “Recs really make this applicant shine” and often referred to phrases within letters of recommendation when making my case in the admission committee for why a student was an excellent fit for our university. From recommendation letters, I could see what a student brought to the classroom and school community.
This was often true for QuestBridge applicants who were first-generation college students from modest financial backgrounds and did not know how to “sell” themselves to an admission committee. They often left out how impressive their strong grades were in the context of their heavy home responsibilities or lack of certain educational amenities that the typical wealthier student has access to, such as Wi-Fi and a personal computer.
Believe me: Your letters can make a big difference in highlighting which applicants are the standout and beloved students in your community.
So how can you check bias in your letters and write a ringing, bias-free endorsement for every applicant, especially marginalized students?
- Avoid invoking stereotypes.
Example: “For a [ethnic group] student, they speak good English” or “She controlled her emotions well while facing initial setbacks” or “Unlike most African Americans, s/he values education.” Hopefully, these examples easily raise red flags. Always ask yourself, if I were to say this to my student or their families, would they be offended? Is this a microaggression? If you’re not sure, ask a colleague who shares the same identity or identities as that student.
- Avoid doubt-raisers and negative language.
Example: “While not the best student I have ever had, s/he….” Or “Although I was worried about their ability to perform well in my class, I….”. That language raises concerns: “Well, why aren’t they the best student that you’ve ever had? What concerns did you have about their ability”? Always focus on the positives, even when discussing growth points.
- Avoid faint praise.
Example: “They worked hard in my class” or “They have a pleasant demeanor” or “Their work was satisfactory.” See how these are neutral terms that do not elevate an applicant or highlight their uniqueness? It is assumed that students put effort into their schoolwork, follow instructions well, and are collegial in the classroom. Try to highlight different positive agentic adjectives and talents. Speaking of which….
- Focus on accomplishments more than personality traits.
As mentioned earlier, research finds that letters written for female applicants often focus on their good community membership traits versus ability and talent. See this article (written for academic job recommendation writers, not college applicants) for additional tips and lists of adjectives to steer clear of and adjectives to use instead.
- Ask permission before including sensitive information to avoid sharing irrelevant info.
Before you share sensitive information that would not be evident in the questions that are typically asked on a college admission application, ask your student if they feel comfortable with you sharing that information in your letter. Does this student want you to share that they are undocumented or have autism? A quick conversation or email contextualizing how you plan to share that information (and why!) will suffice and honor that student’s decision.
- Share a story (or two) versus listing a string of adjectives.
Always share one or two vivid stories that highlight the student’s talent, ability, and personality. This will bring the applicant to life. These stories should be the bulk of your letter of recommendation. But if time and numbers are not on your side, bullet points that share shorter two-to-three sentence vignettes instead of full-fledged paragraphs will also suffice.
- Quality check your letters of recommendation. Read your letters back to yourself and ask yourself, if I changed this applicant’s race, gender, or pronouns would I use different adjectives and examples? Would I write a different letter or avoid bringing up their identities altogether? If so, the good news is there’s still time to change your letter and check the bias that exists within it.
In closing, a recommendation for school-based staff: Discuss racial and ethnic bias every season before students request letters and while your colleagues write and review their own.
Admission counselors: Ask yourself, is this a biased letter? How does this description match (or not match) the others found within the file?
And to all: Always be mindful.
Safiya Johnson is a college and career coach at a South Side Chicago Public Schools high school. Prior to working in urban education, Johnson worked for the University of Chicago (IL) Office of College Admissions as a director of community initiatives and senior assistant director of admissions. Connect with Johnson on Twitter or LinkedIn.
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