Lost in Translation: Elite College Admission and High School Differences in Letters of Recommendation

Doctoral Dissertation


After decades of increased interest from applicants, the most elite universities in the United States are more selective than ever before. Using interviews with admissions officers at internationally renowned universities that accept fewer than 12% of applicants, this project presents elite university admission as a two-stage process of screening. Gatekeepers first narrow the applicant pool using quantitative measures, then use qualitative components to identify the highest achieving students and those who match the culture of the university.

As competition for coveted positions in the entering classes at elite universities has transitioned to a national marketplace, the selection process has transitioned from the “chartering and bartering” observed in the late 20th century to a larger system of professional networks. Teachers and counselors at privileged schools leverage these networks to develop skills that enable them to advocate for their students in a more informed way than peers at less privileged high schools. Using a corpus of 17,000 letters of recommendation written on behalf of high school applicants to an elite university, this research shows that letters of recommendation from private (non-religious) high schools are longer, in some circumstances more positive, and contain more of the information that admissions officers look for in letters of recommendation. The “shared language” between teachers and counselors at privileged high schools and admission officers at elite universities has implications for the inter-generational transmission of advantage through the process of effectively maintained inequality.


Attribute NameValues
Author Jonathan D. Schwarz
Contributor William Carbonaro, Research Director
Degree Level Doctoral Dissertation
Degree Discipline Sociology
Degree Name Doctor of Philosophy
Defense Date
  • 2016-06-27

Submission Date 2016-07-19
  • sociology

  • sociology of education

  • admissions

  • intergenerational transmission

  • higher education

  • sector effects

  • effectively maintained inequality

  • letters of recommendation

  • stratification

  • chartering and bartering

  • English

Record Visibility Public
Content License
  • All rights reserved

Departments and Units

Digital Object Identifier


This DOI is the best way to cite this doctoral dissertation.


Please Note: You may encounter a delay before a download begins. Large or infrequently accessed files can take several minutes to retrieve from our archival storage system.