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Three Tips For Writing A Bias-Free Recommendation

You’d never intentionally insert bias into a letter of recommendation you’re writing for a promising student, right? Well it happens more often than you’d think, but these tips can help you check your work.

February 27, 2019

Paula Ann Solis

During the recent high profile trial over bias in Harvard University’s admissions policies, the school’s longtime dean of admissions testified that students who are white tend to receive “somewhat stronger” letters of recommendation than their peers who are Asian American. Alyson Tom’s reaction? “Yeah, I believe it’s possible.”

Tom spent five years as a senior assistant director and assistant director of admission at Rice University in Houston. Today she’s on the other side of the admissions desk as an associate director of college counseling at Castilleja School, a private, all-girls middle and high school in Palo Alto, California. Tom is in the process of incorporating bias awareness into the school’s teacher recommendation writing letter session. She is also working with a colleague to create a session on bias for a national conference this summer.

“During my first year at Rice, I read a recommendation letter about an Asian American boy written by a high school counselor. The counselor described the candidate as ‘your typical Asian boy interested in STEM.’ The bias there wasn’t even thinly veiled. I still remember the shock and disappointment I felt as an Asian American woman,” Tom says. 

Why would someone include biases that could hurt an applicant’s odds? And what can be done? Tom spoke with One Day to offer some advice:

1. You can’t check your biases until you know they exist.

“Most recommenders are genuinely trying to do their best, but everyone has biases. People might call it something other than a bias; maybe it’s a stereotype. Regardless, it’s much harder to detect and correct if it’s not recognized. Even writing about ‘model minorities,’ especially when referring to Asian Americans, can trigger other biases for the person who reads that letter.” Tom recommends Project Implicit, a series of online quizzes, to test for biases based on everything from religious affiliation to body weight.

2. When you can’t shake a stereotype from your mind, work harder to find out what makes a student unique.

“Not all stereotypes seem negative, like being an ‘overachiever’ or great at STEM. But stereotypes aren’t productive for college admissions. As soon as you evoke a stereotype, that student becomes less of an individual.” Tom suggests finding a way of describing your perceived stereotypes in a way that doesn’t blame race, gender, or other aspects of a student’s background. If a student is brilliant at math, don’t assume it’s easy because of race or gender and downplay the student’s talents. Celebrate accomplishments enthusiastically. If a student is quiet, don’t assume it’s due to the person’s culture. Instead, highlight the student’s strengths and share perhaps that he or she excels at written expression.

3. Check your work.

“Look at a letter you’ve written and ask yourself, would I use the same language in this letter for a similar student with a different race or gender, like a white male? If your answer is ‘no,’ then you probably need to rework what you’ve written. It’s an unsophisticated test, but it’s surprisingly effective.”

Tom spoke at Teach For America’s panel “Unpacking the Truth About Race Conscious Admissions.” She serves on the National Association for College Admission Counseling Government Relations Committee and co-chairs the association’s Asian/Pacific Islander Special Interest Group.

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