Annals of bad academic software: letters of recommendation

‘Tis the season for recommendation letters, and I again find myself thwarted by terrible UX and decisions made by people who manage application systems.

  • Why do I need to rank the candidate in 8 (or more!) different categories vs. people at my institution? Top 5% in terms of “self-motivation” or top 10%? What if they were an REU student not from my school? What if I have no point of comparison? What makes you think that people are either (a) going to make numbers up or (b) put top scores on everything because that is easier? Moreover why make it mandatory to answer these stupid questions to submit my letter?
  • One system made me cut and paste my letter as text into a text box, then proceeded to strip out all the line/paragraph breaks. ‘Tis a web-app designed by an idiot, full of incompetent input-handling, and hopefully at least signifying to the committee that they should admit the student.
  • Presumably the applicant filled out my contact information already, so why am I being asked to fill it out again?

It’s enough to make me send all letters by post — it would save time, I think.

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2 thoughts on “Annals of bad academic software: letters of recommendation

  1. The online systems have gotten a lot better over the last eight years. There used to be file format problems, Web sites that only worked with Internet Exploder, and all sorts on unreliable behavior. Now, it’s almost always a simple matter of uploading the right PDF. You get a chance to proofread the final package before it’s submitted, but there’s never a problem (which was not true when I started writing a lot of recommendations).

    The repetitive evaluation of students can be annoying, but it doesn’t take very long, even if you don’t tick the same box for every question. It’s not universal, but a lot of universities now ask you to state explicitly what body of students you are comparing the applicant to. And I know from the other end of the process (admissions) that the answers to those questions are sometimes fairly useful.

  2. When I was in high school and college soliciting recommendations, I used interfolio.com to spare my letter writers from some of the pain. The professors would upload the letter to Interfolio once, and then the Interfolio staff would be left to deal with the bad UX for each school’s application, for a few bucks a pop. However, due to the supplemental questions like you describe, there were sometimes problems if the Interfolio team didn’t know what box to check, so YMMV.

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