After You, Alphonse

I’m deep in the annual ritual of getting out recommendation letters for students applying to graduate programs and other opportunities.

Sometimes an attempt to simplify or streamline a procedure reveals how arbitrary some of the procedure actually is. Case in point: electronic submission of recommendation letters.

I am all for this shift. It cuts way down on the hassle factor that was involved in printing a zillion letters to letterhead, sticking them in envelope after envelope, tracking down the occasional letter that went awry in the postal system, and so on.

But what now drives me nuts is having to go through the same sequence of form-filling out, clicking of radio buttons that rate students, and uploading of document files for five or six institutions per student. Especially when many of those institutions are using the same service, such as Embark.

Why can’t there be a single universal form? Well, because each institution is insisting on signifying its sovereign control over graduate applications, its allegedly distinctive identity, by making its application ever so slightly different. Harvard does it by having maybe ten more categories to rank than anyone else. Another university does it by reversing the right-left ordering of the rankings. E.g., on most of the applications, the highest rankings are on the right, lowest on left; the variant application has highest right, lowest left. This is the equivalent of marking the wrong leg for a knee operation just to see if the surgeon is paying attention: you can almost hear Nelson Muntz from the Simpsons saying “Ha Ha” when you start to click the radio buttons on the wrong side, accidentally indicating that your recommendee is the worst student you’ve ever seen.

I can just see the conversation that would follow on an effort to get a universal graduate application. “Well, we’re Harvard, darlings. Of course we need to know more than you rag-and-bone shop operations.” “Well, if Harvard’s not going universal, neither are we.” Then there’s the institutions that stubbornly refuse to do the online thing at all, or the ones that are working with other vendors that have different interfaces. Or another favorite: the institution whose application requires submitting recommendation letters in a single file format. (Most take .doc, .pdf, .rtf, .txt, but I just came across one that stubbornly insisted that it be .txt and nothing else, not even .rtf.)

Look, I grant that there are a couple of real issues with online recommendations. It might easier for an applicant to fake some recommendations, though by the same token, just as with plagiarism, I’ll wager it’s easier to spot a systematic faker. But if the differences between different institutional forms come down to whether they have three or six categories of rankings of various kinds of excellence or skill, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be the same form. I should only have to do this once per candidate: the difference between different institutions should come down to how they weigh and discuss the common application, not the application itself.

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7 Responses to After You, Alphonse

  1. Dance says:

    Full agreement.

    I’m not sure that an assembly line of printing onto letterhead isn’t less hassle, to be honest. Especially when you add in the six new login names and passwords that need to be created.

  2. Micaela 07 says:

    I went through this last year on the applicant end and found it very frustrating as well. I almost screamed when I got to the page of the Harvard application that gave a long list of dead white men and and I had to indicate that I was not a descendant of any of them (maybe I am related to Bayard F. Newberry III, Class of 1804, but I don’t know it). One of my recommenders insisted on paper only, which all of the schools accepted.

    Best of all was NYU, whose server more or less gave out two days before the deadline and wasn’t fixed until after it.

  3. Sisyphus says:

    Yup yup. And the same problems are there for job applicants too. It’s especially frustrating entering in four or five pages of your data to separate on-line searches when it’s clear they are all using the same online program.

  4. JonathanGray says:

    The current system doesn’t seem to think about profs who might be in the field, or sick, or on holiday, sabbatical, etc. How do candidates in anthropology with instructors galavanting around the world manage to apply?

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    Well, for undergraduates, they have to think ahead in some cases about faculty who will be on sabbatical. I’ve occasionally written for students I know somewhat well but not as well as someone else because the professor who knows them best is away on leave. Colleagues of mine who are very well-organized who are going on leave have sometimes contacted students that they know may need recommendations to tell them to request by a certain date or miss out. I think all of the electronic-form using schools still also have a paper form that can be used instead, and so if you’ve thought ahead and gotten a sealed recommendation from someone, you’re ok.

  6. Dance says:

    Addendum–little things like including the deadline in the email notification that I need to submit a letter, and including the name of the school in the subject line, would also use tech to make my life easier rather than more difficult.

  7. Daniel Rosenblatt says:

    And what is with Virginia and Berkeley?? reformatting a letter so it reads well as a .txt document seems like something that shouldn’t be necessary these days.

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