Avoid jumping all over the first person who offers to write you a “great recommendation.” Recommendation writing is both an art and a science, and few people do it really well, either because they don’t know you well enough to address the things admissions officers care about, because they can’t be bothered, or because they don’t know how.
Recommender Tip #1: Academic Recommenders Many law schools state an express preference for academic recommendations, meaning someone who has taught you in college and can speak to your strengths as a student and a scholar. The reason they do that is because they look to your recommendations to try to predict, as best they can, how you’ll do in law school, so they want to get a sense of your talents in the classroom. If the LSAT score is meant to give them an idea of your intellectual horsepower, your recommendations (along with your transcript) are supposed to let them gauge what you do with that horsepower. We all know people who are whip sharp but slackers in the classroom, and people who have to work their buns off to perform well — admissions officers want to figure out where you fall on that continuum.
If you’ve been out of college for more than two years, admissions officers understand that it can be very difficult to track down your old college professors, and they’ll cut you some slack. If you’re in a graduate program, you can ask one of your graduate professors to write a letter. If you’re out in the working world, you can ask your boss. If an undergraduate recommendation is at all possible, though, you should try to drum one up, and submit a second, nonacademic one (if required) from one of these alternate sources.
Of your various professors, the most useful ones are going to be those who taught classes that approximate law school the best: classes that are heavy on analytical reasoning, reading, research, and expository writing. Recommendations from classes like Theater, Communications, Creative Writing, Statistics, and Conversational French won’t be as useful.
Recommenders that are almost always useless for the purposes of law school admissions include your state senator, friends of the family, relatives, famous people and muckety-muck judges who know you only socially (if at all), your lacrosse coach, and your choir director.
If you’re still in school or a recent graduate, and you have some experience working in a legal capacity (as a paralegal, say, or an intern at a legal clinic), you can certainly submit a recommendation from the people you’ve worked for. Just make sure they are supplemental recommendation letters rather than substitutes for your academic recommendations.
If a school states no preference for the type of recommender they’re looking for, assume they prefer an academic one. And if any school gives you instructions that contradict what I’m telling you here, follow those instructions.
Recommender Tip #2: Closeness Trumps Rank Remember poor old Matthew from the beginning of the chapter? He made a classic mistake: He assumed that a recommendation from a Nobel Prize winner was too good an opportunity to pass up, and he didn’t stop to ask himself what that professor would be able to say about him. Matthew would have been much better off asking his TA for that class to write his recommendation (or picking another class entirely for his recommendation). His TA would have been able to base his recommendation on their weekly discussion groups and weekly assignments that the TA graded. Many law school applicants attend colleges that do not enable up-close-and personal relationships with professors — some people spend four years interacting only with graduate students — and they shouldn’t worry that they are at a disadvantage with respect to their recommendations. The person writing the recommendation should be able to speak with experience and authority about you in the classroom, and if that means you have to forgo the Nobel Prize winner, that’s okay — you’re better off with the TA. The same principle applies if your recommendation is coming from the working world. You’re better off requesting a letter from the congressional staffer you worked with and reported to every day than the bigwig senator who still mispronounces your name or confuses you with the aide who worked for him three sessions ago.
Once you’ve cleared that hurdle, if you’re choosing between someone with less teaching experience and someone with more, pick the latter. Being able to speak from the experience of teaching ten years’ or fifteen years’ or even decades’ worth of undergraduates will give a teacher’s opinion more weight. A TA won’t have been teaching that long, and calling you the best student he’s ever taught won’t sound impressive if this is his first year teaching.
A caveat: While it’s generally true that law schools prefer academic recommendations over professional ones, there’s a tipping point for older applicants where it starts to look funny if you don’t provide a recommendation from your employer. Unless you’ve been out of college for at least seven or ten years, though, or unless a school specifically prefers or requires a professional recommendation, you’re still better off trying to drum up at least one academic one if you can.
Recommender Tip #3: Seminars Trump Lectures Why? Because your professors get to know you in seminars in a way they can’t in lecture classes. The more class participation opportunities you have, and the more substantial the writing and research you do for a class, the better able your professor will be to discuss your academic talents. If you’re reading this book in your undergraduate years, try to take multiple seminars with a professor with whom you really hit it off. Even better, take on a major project with a professor, like a thesis.
Seminars tend to be higher-level classes, so you probably won’t be able to take them until your junior year, at the earliest. Your professor will need at least the entire semester, if not multiple semesters, to get to know you and your work, so plan ahead. You’ll need time to cultivate those relationships.
Recommender Tip #4: Willing and Able It’s human nature: People are busy at best, lazy at worst, and don’t like writing bang-up recommendations except for the few pet students and employees they really want to go to bat for. And that’s under the best of circumstances. With the huge upsurge in law school applications in recent years, professors and bosses are bombarded with recommendation requests, and they grant many that they shouldn’t. Why? Because they are usually nice people who don’t have the heart to say no, even though they don’t have the time or the energy or the knowledge to write meaningful letters, letters that will really help your cause with admissions officers. So be smart about how you approach people. You should ask professors to be candid with you:
Do they have time to write a recommendation for you? Tell them you understand that they are deluged with requests and that a well-crafted and effective recommendation letter takes time and effort. Ask them politely to decline if they don’t think they can make that commitment right now. This also gives them an easy out if they don’t think they can write you a favorable letter.
Do they think they can write a very strong letter on your behalf? If they say no, be gracious and thank them for their honesty. Make clear that you’re happy to approach someone else if they have any reservations at all, and explain that you’d still love to hear their constructive feedback for your own benefit.
If there is any resistance or push-back or wavering, anything less than an enthusiastic commitment right off the bat, let it go. Thank them and move on. There will be times when you have taken a number of classes with a professor or worked very closely with a boss who has gotten to know you very well, but you suspect that she is not one of your greatest fans for one reason or another. Maybe she doesn’t like your writing style. Maybe he doesn’t like your view of Plato, or how you handled the Crisco account. Maybe she’s sick of losing her top people to law school. Maybe you’ll lose your bonus if he gets wind that you’ll be bailing. Whatever the reason, you’re better off finding someone else. Closeness and status don’t help if a recommender isn’t going to say great things about you.
Recommender Tip #5: Collaboration Also try to gauge whether your potential recommenders would be willing to work with you on the letter. They should be grateful to receive that offer of help — and many will be — but some won’t be open to collaboration at all. All else being equal, pick the person who is willing to work with you and understand why you’re applying to law school, what you’re trying to communicate in your applications, and how you’re trying to present yourself.
For example, I recall reading an application essay that set forth all the compelling reasons why that particular applicant wanted to leverage his banking and finance experience as a corporate lawyer. You can imagine my eyebrow cocking when I got to the recommendation letter written by his boss at the bank, who explained that the applicant wanted to go to law school so he could be an “agent for social change.” Those things aren’t inherently exclusive of each other, but the recommendation just wasn’t in sync with the rest of the application, which hadn’t talked at all about wanting to bring about social change. It felt like something the recommender had just thrown in there because he thought that must be what law schools want to hear.
How do you make sure that your messages are in sync? By being prepared and giving them the information they need to write their letters. Collect the information that you want your recommenders to have:
A letter explaining
why you’re applying to law school;
what schools you’re applying to (your list doesn’t have to be final, but if, for example, you’re applying only to New York or D.C. schools, your recommenders should know that, and why);
how you’re positioning yourself in the rest of your application (if you’re far enough along with your drafts, you should include your personal statement or statement of purpose; good recommenders will demand them);
which qualities you want them to address in their letters (you’ll compile that list from the individual law schools’ recommendation forms), along with suggested anecdotes and examples to illustrate them; and
when the letters are due (i.e., when you want them submitted to LSDAS), and when you’ll be checking in with them to follow up
Copies of any graded class work and assignments for that professor, as well as any exams you’ve taken for that class; for a professional recommender, copies of any reports, assignments, memos, and evaluations
Stamped and addressed envelopes for mailing the letters to LSAC
It’s best to present this information to them when you both have some time to review it together. Offer to take your recommender out to lunch or coffee so you can have a heart-to-heart about your strategy and your goals, and also so you can refresh your recommender’s memory about your talents and performance. Make sure they know how to get in touch with you if they have any follow-up questions or run into any problems.
Explaining your goals is particularly important when you meet with your recommenders, because many professors and employers despair at losing their top talent to law schools. They are not wrong in concluding that law school is a default choice for many college students and employees looking for a career change. You will go a long way toward winning their unqualified support if you can persuade them that you’ve really thought about why you want a law degree and what your long-term career goals are.
Recommender Tip #6: Show-offs Most professors think they are A+, world-class recommendation writers when in fact, as I explained above, most are far from it. If a professor shows off about how great his recommendations are, don’t assume it’s true. Better to run far away — in my experience, those are the people who are the most clueless about what a good law school recommendation looks like. I’d be especially wary of people who claim to have a great reputation with law school admissions committees or to have some kind of special “in” at the admissions office. There’s way too much turnover among admissions officers at law schools to assume that the person who ends up reading your file will have even heard of that professor. The delusions of grandeur are hilarious from the admissions officer’s side of the fence, but it’s not funny for the applicant.
Recommender Tip #7: Presentation I’m almost embarrassed to have to say this, but I’ve seen this all too often: Make sure you choose someone who can write well. It’s shocking how badly some recommenders write. Sometimes one gets the sense that they’re just hasty and sloppy and haven’t proofread their work, but other times it’s clear that they’re just bad writers, plain and simple. Bad writing gravely undermines whatever good things they might have to say about you.
Recommender Tip #8: Timeliness Be wary of professors who are habitually, chronically, congenitally tardy or disorganized. I’ve seen too many applications held up by recommenders, when the entire file is complete but for that one letter. Some people end up missing the application deadline entirely because of their recommenders. Don’t let this happen to you. If the best person to write your recommendation has a problem with deadlines, you need to ask early and often and ride him hard, or pick someone else altogether.
Copyright © 2006 Anna Ivey
Anna Ivey, JD, served as dean of admissions at the University of Chicago Law School. She now runs Anna Ivey Admissions Counseling, a counseling firm for college, business school, and law school applicants. She divides her time between Boston and Orlando. Please visit her website at http://www.annaivey.com.