Dear University of California, Berkeley,
We understand. You are special. Everyone wants you, and considering the large volume of applicants you receive each year, I am sure it is difficult distinguishing one amazing student from another. So while it is great that you want to give everyone a fair shot by accepting letters of recommendation from some applicants this upcoming fall, I believe that doing so will unnecessarily complicate the admission process, as well as discourage students from applying to college.
I know this doesn’t affect me, since I am already in college and do not have a time machine in my possession. However, let me tell you the story of Sally Earnestchild. Though Sally gets good grades and is active in her school, she is not exceptional. Fortunately for Sally, her AP English teacher and her school counselor are willing to vouch for her amazing personality and work ethic. They will describe her as hard working and sneak in a charming anecdote for a touch of familiarity. This letter of recommendation could be the thing that pushes her over the threshold, yes?
However, Sally’s AP English teacher instructs seven periods in one day, and her school counselor advises around 300 students whose last names begin with the letters E through F. Sally also only meets with the latter twice every school year. Sure, Sally could have asked her club advisors to write her recommendation — but she does not really get along with them. In reality, Sally is merely another face in a galaxy of students. She might get good grades and participate in extracurricular activities, but so does anyone else who is serious about college.
Sally might be fictional, but her plight is not. Her story is similar to all the public high school students across the nation who want to get with you, UC Berkeley. You are the perfect combination of West Coast cool and East Coast class. You are basically the common folk’s answer to Harvard. But why are you trying to be Harvard?
I admit that was presumptuous, since letters of recommendation are not solely Harvard territory. All private universities require them, but it is also students from intimate private high schools who have an advantage because their smaller class sizes allow faculty members to actually get to know them beyond face value.
Meanwhile, public school students are left with generic letters of recommendation, composed by people who do not get paid enough to deal with such a large volume of students’ requests. Also, at the tender ages 14 to 18, not many students possess the shrewdness or awareness to network and build beneficial relationships.
While there are definitely students who can easily befriend a teacher, others have a difficult time making an impression and might perceive this new policy as a hurdle in their college endeavors.
Also, you are part of a system. What you do, the nine other UCs are expected to follow. Adopting this new policy can transform the University of California system’s reputation. A series of public universities will suddenly seem like an exclusive society one can only get into through the sponsorship of others.
It is unfortunate that students who apply to public universities are reduced to grades and test scores. However, their personal statements are meant to compensate for that discrepancy. In a sense, they are like letters of recommendation — except they are composed by the students who are recommending themselves to you. If anything, a personal composition is the greatest measure of a person’s character. You can not only judge them by the content of their essays, but also their style. A person’s writing can reveal a lot about them if read closely enough.
It is not as if there is a shortage of students applying to your school. I personally find nothing wrong about your current policy of requesting supplemental letters from students you are on the fence about.
The comfort in applying to a public university is that, although it is a selective process, it is also simple and intuitive. While grades, scores and personal statements definitely only provide a limited perspective on a student, they are still testaments to a student’s abilities and values. Perhaps a closer analysis of the information presented to you is a better approach.
Those grades and test scores are still the product of long hours of studying and practice. These are in addition to hours of extracurricular activities and volunteer work. How the student manages to excel in both departments as well as reveal aspects of themselves in their personal response should be an adequate rule of measurement in determining whether they are accepted or rejected.
Adding another variable to an equation never leads to a solution — it only makes it longer and more complicated.
Peace, love and light,