Letters of Recommendation at UC Berkeley

 Letters of recommendation are an important addition to UC’s existing holistic review admissions processes, which aim to look beyond grades and scores to determine academic potential, drive, and leadership abilities.

Background

Unlike other highly selective universities, UC Berkeley did not ask applicants to submit letters of recommendation prior to 2015. This may have limited the information available for use in holistic review, and some at Berkeley believed that as the university became more selective it was getting harder to make informed admission decisions with the evidence available. Others, however, were concerned that students from disadvantaged backgrounds may not have had access to adults who could write strong letters, and that the use of letters would further disadvantage these students in the admissions process.

Research Project

CPL was asked to evaluate the second year of a pilot experiment in which a subset of applicants to UC Berkeley (approximately 30%) were invited to submit letters of recommendation if they wished. Any submitted letters were incorporated into a “second read” evaluation of their applications.

CPL evaluated the impact on the admissions outcomes of applicants from four groups typically underrepresented among successful applicants to Berkeley: students from families with low incomes, students whose parents did not attend college, students from low-scoring high schools, and students from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. 

Research Team

Professor Jesse Rothstein (Principal Investigator), Patrick Kennedy, Charles Davis, Elsa Augustine

Results

CPL found that the option to submit letters of recommendation led to a more diverse class of admitted students overall, though many students did not submit letters when given the opportunity to do so. Berkeley is now asking for letters of recommendation from students who are at the cusp of admission and are subject to a round of augmented review. 

Future Research

Further research is ongoing into the role that letters of recommendation play in the admissions process, and in particular into the effect of the actual content of the letters and whether letter writers may introduce bias, for example by writing more positive letters for students from advantaged backgrounds. In addition to examining the impact of letters of recommendation on admissions decisions, CPL is analyzing the subsequent academic outcomes and overall success of students admitted with letters of recommendation throughout their time in college. Understanding whether the inclusion of letters leads to the admission of students who go on to perform well in college, and whether this effect is uniform across demographic groups, is integral to understanding the overall impact of the introduction of letters of recommendation on the student body of UC Berkeley.

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