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OiYan Poon

Brian Heseung Kim, Julie J. Park, Pearl Lo, Dominique J. Baker, Nancy Wong, Stephanie Breen, Huong Truong, Jia Zheng, Kelly Ochs Rosinger, OiYan Poon.

Letters of recommendation from school counselors are required to apply to many selective colleges and universities. Still, relatively little is known about how this non-standardized component may affect equity in admissions. We use cutting-edge natural language processing techniques to algorithmically analyze a national dataset of over 600,000 student applications and counselor recommendation letters submitted via the Common App platform. We examine how the length and topical content of letters (e.g., sentences about Personal Qualities, Athletics, Intellectual Promise, etc.) relate to student self-identified race/ethnicity, sex, and proxies for socioeconomic status. Paired with regression analyses, we explore whether demographic differences in letter characteristics persist when accounting for additional student, school, and counselor characteristics, as well as among letters written by the same counselor and among students with comparably competitive standardized test scores. We ultimately find large and noteworthy naïve differences in letter length and content across nearly all demographic groups, many in alignment with known inequities (e.g., many more sentences about Athletics among White and higher-SES students, longer letters and more sentences on Personal Qualities for private school students). However, these differences vary drastically based on the exact controls and comparison groups included – demonstrating that the ultimate implications of these letter differences for equity hinges on exactly how and when letters are used in admissions processes (e.g., are letters evaluated at face value across all students, or are they mostly compared to other letters from the same high school or counselor?). Findings do not point to a clear recommendation whether institutions should keep or discard letter requirements, but reflect the importance of reading letters and overall applications in the context of structural opportunity. We discuss additional implications and possible recommendations for college access and admissions policy/practice.

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Julie J. Park, Brian Heseung Kim, Nancy Wong, Jia Zheng, Stephanie Breen, Pearl Lo, Dominique J. Baker, Kelly Ochs Rosinger, Mike Hoa Nguyen, OiYan Poon.

Inequality related to standardized tests in college admissions has long been a subject of discussion; less is known about inequality in non-standardized components of the college application. We analyzed extracurricular activity descriptions in 5,967,920 applications submitted through the Common Application platform. Using human-crafted keyword dictionaries combined with text-as-data (natural language processing) methods, we found that White, Asian American, high-SES, and private school students reported substantially more activities, more activities with top-level leadership roles, and more activities with distinctive accomplishments (e.g., honors, awards). Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and low-income students reported a similar proportion of activities with top-level leadership positions as other groups, although the absolute number was lower. Gaps also lessened for honors/awards when examining proportions, versus absolute number. Disparities decreased further when accounting for other applicant demographics, school fixed effects, and standardized test scores. However, salient differences related to race and class remain. Findings do not support a return to required standardized testing, nor do they necessarily support ending consideration of activities in admissions. We discuss reducing the number of activities that students report and increasing training for admissions staff as measures to strengthen holistic review.

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