The Case for Peer Recommendations in College Admissions

The Claremont Colleges’ Class of 2020 recently received their acceptance letters after many months of applications. This application game never seems to end, as seniors can testify. It’s stressful to find ways to best illustrate our full selves to college admissions. We are more than just our academics. Although many colleges have moved towards a more holistic application process, I argue that the current process is still disadvantageous for students. How can an applicant advocate for more than their academic selves?

What about peer recommendations? Only Dartmouth College and Davidson College ask for them. In their words, “peer recommendations provide fresh insights to the applicant’s interests and character,” helping them “understand the nature and extent of the respect accorded to the applicant by peers.”

More colleges should ask for both teacher and peer recommendations to provide a more holistic and representative view of the applicant. Isn’t that the goal?

Contrary to popular belief, peers are actually valid and good judges of the same traits that colleges look for in teacher recommendations. In a 2011 study, 165 Washington University in St. Louis students provided self-ratings for different traits and were subsequently rated by 4 friends and 4 strangers. Researchers then correlated these ratings to established behavioral tests to measure accuracy. They found that friend-ratings are just as accurate as self-ratings for traits such as assertiveness and leadership. Even more, friends are more accurate than both self and strangers at knowing traits such as creativity and intelligence.

Peer recommendations could complement teacher recommendations in regards to the traits mentioned above. More importantly, peer recommendations can illustrate traits that teachers miss. Peers have more opportunities than teachers to observe an applicant’s daily life, gaining insight into the applicant’s attitudes, personal, and interpersonal traits—characteristics that college admissions ought to evaluate.

A U.S. Army study covering 329 soldiers found that peer evaluations predicted final training outcomes better than staff evaluations. While peers evaluated each other based on motivation and interpersonal skills, staff placed greater emphasis on task performances.

Evidently, evaluations of task performances (such as academic achievements) do not correlate with an applicant’s future success. Teachers can evaluate students on their personal and interpersonal traits, but they’re often shielded from the complete truth. Teachers are biased by the student’s academic standing. They see the end result—the test scores—instead of the process. Peers see the process.

For example, we all know (or were guilty of being) the social “free-rider” in group assignments. Teachers, however, receive one final product and evaluate the group as a whole. Can teachers really be valid recommenders of an applicant’s leadership and interpersonal skills when most group assignments are done outside of classroom settings, blinding them to the group dynamics?

Questioning the validity of teacher recommendations doesn’t just stop here—racial biases exist, even amongst teachers.

A 2016 study from Stanford University found that teachers are less likely to expect black and Latinx students to complete more than high school when compared to white students.

Studies have shown that teacher expectations can be self-fulfilling, leading them to act and teach in ways that meet their expectations. Thus, a teacher’s racial bias towards a marginalized student has the potential to color the teacher's recommendation for the student.

During my research, I emailed the 5C admission offices for their opinions on peer recommendations. Many wrote back with their concern that peer recommendations would create an additional burden to applicants and potentially discourage under-resourced students from applying.

However, doesn’t the same concern go for teacher recommendations? Students, especially minority students, can also feel discouraged when asked to provide teacher recommendations. Teacher’s racially biased expectations can damage a minority student’s ability to form close teacher-student relationships, let alone ask for recommendations.

Admission officers also expressed concerns that peers don’t have the writing skills to compose a persuasive recommendation or that peers would simply talk about how good a friend the applicant is to them. One solution could be giving specific prompts instead of the open-letter recommendation style like that of teachers. Ask peers to rank the applicant on specific traits, such as those mentioned above, and have them provide a specific incident or example to support their rating.

Peer recommendations are not bogus. Peers are qualified evaluators on many of the same traits looked for in teacher recommendations. Peers can evaluate traits that teachers often miss. Peer recommendations help counter racial injustices, fostering a holistic college admission process that allows admissions to see beyond the student’s academic evaluations from authority figures. Peer recommendations are the solution.

Jackie Chang PO '18 is studying PPA-Psychology, concentrating on education policies. She would like to teach preschool in poor urban areas and teach students her favorite preschool song: “Apples and Bananas.”

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