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Opinion: Letters of recommendation add burden for students, do more harm than good

Letters of recommendation are an outdated requirement that must go, especially amid the added difficulties of remote learning. (Screen capture by Lauren Man/Assistant Photo editor)

By Victoria Rodriguez

Feb. 5, 2021 2:45 p.m.

Letters of recommendation are a common and prevalent part of academia for many students.

But this might be doing more harm than good.

Remote learning has made this fact brutally clear – especially when it comes to non-traditional students.

Letters of recommendation are requested, if not required, in almost all scenarios. Graduate school, medical school, law school and internships ask students to provide one or more letters of recommendation.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Scholarships are one of the primary resources that require letters of recommendation. This requirement is on top of the general application that often includes student grades, test scores and personal statements.

While letters of recommendation may be a difficult ask for any student, non-traditional students such as transfers, students with gaps in their education and part-time attendees stand to lose the most from this requirement.

Even before the pandemic, requesting and writing letters of recommendation were no easy task. Now, it’s far more challenging.

A classroom behind a screen does not allow students or professors to truly connect to produce substantial letters. And with the already limited timeline that non-traditional students have at UCLA, there are fewer opportunities to forge those connections.

Letters of recommendation are an outdated item that only adds to the growing academic, financial and personal pressures students are already grappling with. They not only fail to reflect the struggles of non-traditional students — they also make academia even more inaccessible. And at the end of the day, students aren’t alone in this struggle. Professors are also tackling the duty of writing these letters while dealing with an overbearing virtual workload.

But obtaining letters of recommendation is only half of the issue. The other half rests in the fact that they are a near-ubiquitous requirement in academia.

Undergraduate Students Association Council Transfer Student Representative Zuleika Bravo has experienced the taxing effort it takes to obtain a letter of recommendation.

“It’s just a lot of work, and I do think it’s unfair, specifically for our community as transfer students,” said Bravo, a fifth-year Latin American studies and political science student.

A letter of recommendation shouldn’t stand in the way of students’ educational careers, but at the moment, it does. Both internal and external scholarship providers such as the Academic Advancement Program and the Leah Bettelman Scholarship reflect the requirement for a letter of recommendation to complete the application.

As the pandemic continues to beget financial insecurity, scholarships are becoming even more necessary. The difficulties associated with seeking a letter of recommendation, however, haven’t changed.

By acting as a potential barrier to securing critical financial assistance, letters of recommendation essentially rob students of money not only for their academics but also everyday living expenses.

It’s a disturbing problem that jeopardizes more than students’ basic needs and professors also shoulder the immense burden.

Even though they engage with students daily, lecturers at UCLA are not incentivized to write letters of recommendation because their workload is already unfair, said John Branstetter, a UCLA lecturer of political science.

The University Council American Federation of Teachers, the union that represents lecturers across the University of California, has been advocating for better pay and increased financial stability for lecturers since their contract with the UC expired in Jan. 2020.

Branstetter added that lecturers have a moral obligation to help students out, even if that means sacrificing the little free time they have.

“I do find that letter writing cuts into my time for other things that I’m also not paid for like research in particular,” Branstetter said. “10 times out of 10, I’m gonna give preference to writing the letter for students, because I think that it makes a difference in (students’) lives.”

Recognizing the imperfections of this process is the first step in raising awareness to scholarship providers.

“(Students) face a whole other set of pressures, and the letter of (recommendation) is kind of a symptom of this really broken system,” Branstetter said. “There’s actually structural reforms that need to happen, on the level of the university.”

And one of those flaws is rooted in students having to rely on a third party to substantiate their talent and skills.

Students know themselves best and needing an outside authority to contextualize their achievements is having them force relationships in a short amount of time.

In all fairness, a letter of recommendation may be one of the only ways to give students without an extensive resume a fair shot at a scholarship. Having a professor or an employer give detailed context of the student’s performance could be helpful.

Rebecca Blustein, assistant director of the UCLA Scholarship Resource Center, said that letters of recommendation offer a holistic overview of a student’s application that allows scholarship agencies to identify their strengths.

But students should not need an outside authority to validate their experiences and accomplishments. Scholarship entities should understand that non-traditional students already have a full plate, and the virtual setting is not making it any less challenging.

A letter of recommendation shouldn’t make or break a student’s academic journey.

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Victoria Rodriguez
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