Are letters of reference for admission to graduate school really necessary?
July 9th, 2009


Are letters of reference for admission to graduate school really necessary? I have been asking this question for almost a year, wondering whether we should get rid of them altogether. Recruitment consultants often suggest we eliminate them for the time-wasting, useless pieces of paper they are. Others, usually graduate officers, argue that they are indispensible to judgments of suitable candidates. The School of Graduate Studies has surveyed units across the campus and the results have demonstrated a renewed commitment to keeping them in place as part of an applicant’s checklist.

One of the reasons they are time-wasters, however, is that they hold up a student’s file. The file is, after all, not complete until all the required pieces of paper have come in: the application form itself, official transcripts, application fee, proof of English proficiency where appropriate, other documents as required by the unit, and, until now, three letters of reference.

For some students, securing three letters of reference is as easy as tweeting. For others, the task is daunting and madly frustrating. It is one thing to ask a professor who has known you well enough to write on your behalf; it is another for that prof to complete the task and actually send in the form or letter, depending on his or her preference. Too many are well intentioned but sadly negligent, or typically absent minded about the duty.

The single most important cause of incomplete files is those irksome letters. When your prof forgets or goes on holiday or simply avoids the responsibility, as so often happens, then the file is stalled at the gate. Students start calling us, wondering in anxiety why they haven’t heard from the university about their application and so we have to tell them their file hasn’t been completed yet. This often startles them. Compelled to go back to their referees, they often sound defeated before they have even had a chance to be considered.

Our obligation in the office is to process those files as quickly as possible. It is a very competitive market and so the sooner we complete the files, and have recommendations for the students we want, the sooner they will accept our offers and register at Memorial. Delays are increasingly fatal.

This is why we have been asked to consider eliminating them. Do departments really take the letters seriously enough? How much weight do they have in determining graduate prospects? The vast majority of letters of reference for graduate school are positive. Admission decisions rest largely on the strength of academic transcripts. Those formally registered list of grades tell the most important story about someone’s potential. Letters are considered by admission committees, sure, but unless there is something really fishy about a recommendation they do not dominate the discussion, and often they do not even factor in.

But there’s the rub—sometimes there is something fishy, or we can hear a warning signal, embedded between the lines of otherwise positive statements about an applicant’s academic history, and that’s all we need to eliminate the file from the pool. For the most part, those letters are useful as weeders, alerting us to something the rest of the file does not necessarily point to. I cannot say for sure, but I would hazard a guess that those kinds of letters are far and few between. Letters of reference belong to the love-in category of red tape and are almost uniformly endorsing of applicants.

But I understand why departments want to hold on to them and to the often tediously late fact of their place in the files. Okay, and so how many letters are enough? Three is too many. Two letters, which used to be the norm here, and is elsewhere, should be enough to paint the picture. From an applicant’s point of view, two people are way easier than three to track down. This is especially true for applicants who have been out of school for a long time and do not have immediate contact with professors anymore. We don’t want them to feel resigned before they have even begun to think about applying.

Memorial is, therefore, not eliminating the demand for references, but we are wisely, I believe, moving to two. We are also hoping that by eliminating the labour of paper letters and implementing an electronic letter-of-reference mechanism we will be facilitating the entire process. Personally, I resent having to download and print off a letter of reference form these days, not to mention having to stuff it in an envelope and send it along via snail mail. How much faster, easier, and more efficient to fill out a form or write a description of an applicant online, pressing send and hoping for the best. That’s where we are moving, as other universities have: to a clean, smart, PDF version of the form, one that should be more accommodating of any user’s needs and time.

As long as people claim letters of reference are useful we shall demand them. But we are obliged to improve on the system we have been using for so long and to ensure that eager applicants to Memorial‘s graduate programs hear from us as soon as possible regarding the status of their files. It’s the least we can do.


Thanks to Linda Cronin for sharing their photo via flickr and creative commons.

Dr. Faye Murrin is Dean pro tempore of the School of Graduate Studies and Associate Professor in the Department of Biology. She completed her B.Sc. (Hons.) at Memorial University, her M.Sc. at Acadia University, and her Ph.D. at Queen's University. Her research interests have always been focused on fungi, in particular the cell biology of insect pathogenic fungi and, more recently, the ecology of mycorrhizal mushrooms in the boreal forest. Dr. Murrin has served in a number of positions on the Council of the Mycological Society of America and was awarded the title of MSA Fellow for her contributions. She was awarded the Women in Science and Engineering Lifetime Membership Award as founding co-director of the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) Summer Program. Dr. Murrin participates in public lectures and workshops, and is a Director on the board of Newfoundland Foray, Inc.

13 Responses to “Are letters of reference for admission to graduate school really necessary?”

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  9. Arvindh Viswanathan says:

    It was a very interesting piece of information. My point of is that in letters of reference, some long forgotten animosity between the student and the professor can surface which might hamper the students chances at admission. Granted that the probability of this happening is very remote, I personally think that even those two letters of reference is unacceptable.

    In this electronic age where teleconferencing is commonplace, is it not better for the committee to have a direct chat with the student, if possible, to gauge his caliber instead of depending on a piece of paper?

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