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.