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Addressing Implicit Bias

ONSF is committed to increasing both the diversity and competitiveness of U-M students applying to major national scholarships and fellowships. One way we do this is by providing resources to letter writers to ensure that all U-M applicants are celebrated, supported, and given the best chance possible as they apply to highly competitive scholarship and fellowship competitions. 

This page addresses the importance of understanding the language recommenders use in writing letters of recommendation, how word choice can affect an applicant's chances, what can be done to recognize implicit bias in writing recommendations, and how to write the best recommendation possible for all applicants. 



Tips to avoiding gender bias in reference writing: are you planning on writing a lettrer of reference for a great student?  Don't fall into these common traps based on unconscious gender bias.

In Bridging the Gap: Perspectives on Nationally Competitive Scholarships, fellowship advisors examine gender bias, the characterization of leadership, and how language in recommendation letters can impact a student's application to nationally competitive awards.  

Read the excerpt available here, or access the full EBook (see Chapter 5).


Inside Higher Ed's "Damning With Faint Praise." An analysis of 1,224 recommendations suggests that the language used to descrbe women in letters of recommendation may put them at a disadvantage.

Research Studies about Bias in Letters of Recommendation

If you are interested in learning more about research pertaining to implicit, gender, and racial bias in letters of recommendation we have provided several studies below. These articles are available online or through a login. 

Gender and Ethnic Bias in Letters of Recommendation

Sample of Abstract: "In this study, researchers analyzed letters of recommendation for evidence of gender and racial bias. Results demonstrate small but significant differences by gender and race in the average length of letters as well as the types of language used to describe students. This article discusses implications for school counselors."

Authors: Patrick Akosprofessor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.Jennifer Kretchmarsenior assistant director of admissions for research, also at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Length: 13 pages

Link to this article:

Implicit bias in letters of recommendation for an undergraduate research internship

Sample of Abstract: "Letters of recommendation are commonly used to assess the potential of undergraduate students to be successful undergraduate research assistants/ interns or their potential as graduate students. However, there is evidence to suggest that reference letters can include unconscious (or implicit) bias that can affect decisions and limit opportunities for under-represented minorities and students from non-research institutions..."

Authors: Chris Houser & Kelly Lemmons (2018) Implicit bias in letters of recommendation for an undergraduate research internship, Journal of Further and Higher Education, 42:5, 585-595

Length: 10 pages

Link to this article:

Gender differences in recommendation letters for postdoctoral fellowships in geoscience

Sample of Abstract: "Here we present an analysis of an international data set of 1,224 recommendation letters, submitted by recommenders from 54 countries, for postdoctoral fellowships in the geosciences over the period 2007–2012. We examine the relationship between applicant gender and two outcomes of interest: letter length and letter tone. Our results reveal that female applicants are only half as likely to receive excellent letters versus good letters compared to male applicants..."

Authors: Dutt, K., Pfaff, D., Bernstein, A. et al. Gender differences in recommendation letters for postdoctoral fellowships in geoscience. Nature Geosci 9, 805–808 (2016).

Link to this article:

Additional Resources

The Reinert Center for Transformative Teaching & Learning created a resource guide for recommenders, that includes a recommender's checklist, along with a list of common superlatives found in letters of recommendation.

Read the full PDF here.

 AAUW's Barriers and Bias: The Status of Women in Leadership report provides general information on implicit bias, as well as on how it can play a role in letters of recommendation (p. 32) and ways to reduce it (p. 35). 

Read the full PDF here.

Avoiding Racial Bias in Letter of Reference Writing

Got a great student or junior scholar who is a person of color (POC)? Planning to write a super letter of reference? Don’t fall into these common traps rooted in unconscious bias. 

Read the full PDF here.