An article in the Washington Post makes excellent points to which I had not previously given enough thought. The author is Jon Boeckenstedt, who works at DePaul University and publishes his own thoughtful Admissions Weblog. He makes the case that the letters of recommendation required by selective colleges are unfair. No doubt the requirement began with the good intention of providing a better sense of a student.
In practice, writes Boekenstedt, the letters are as much about the teacher as the student. "The letter has virtually nothing to do with the student’s performance, and a lot to do with the teacher’s ability to turn a phrase, note interesting character traits, structure a cogent series of paragraphs that tell a story, and even throw in a few instances of discordia concors to show his or her own wit and charm."
Add the fact that private schools have counselors whose job it is to write glossy portraits of their students, and applicants from public schools are at a disadvantage insofar as their counselors are likely have less time for the task.
For its part, DePaul does not require recommendation letters or, for that matter, SAT or ACT scores. The 1,000-plus colleges which require teacher recommendations are unlikely to drop the practice anytime soon.
There is hope. I believe that teacher recommendations carry less weight than personal essays. Rather than fret about whether a teacher or counselor can paint a good portrait, students can take charge. An essay that is honest, introspective and well-written will tell admissions officers all they need to know about the character of a student.