You’re working on your law school applications, do you know where your recommenders are? If you don’t, you should. We see it every year, the poor LOR gets forgotten until the last minute, never getting the attention it deserves. Applicants seem to consider it a painful and relatively useless part of the application. So, why worry about it until the absolute last possible moment? So sad, and so very mistaken! Letters of recommendation, although they won’t likely sway the balance in your favor, it can definitely sway the balance against it. As such, you need to take them very seriously. A bad LOR is like tequila; you don’t think it’s so bad in the heat of the moment, but you definitely regret it the next day.
Why LORs are Important
LORs deserve just as much attention as any other part of your application, for two very important reasons.
- They come from an outside perspective and speak about you in the third person. This gives them more weight. They allow the Admissions Committee to corroborate your academic story, appraise any personality traits you excluded from your application, and learn of any other qualifications (positive or negative) that you may bring to the table.
- Recommendation letters and recommenders are also almost completely out of your control. You need to be aware of exactly what you can control and how you can control it best.
Getting the Best Recommenders
First things first, if you’re reading this during your freshman or sophomore year of college, congratulations! You have a leg up on cultivating your recommenders now. As a general rule, the longer the student-teacher relationship, the better the letter. The most important part of a recommendation letter is not about cramming in a ton of positive words. It’s about how sincere a letter is and how much it rings like a personal account of the applicant. The only way to organically achieve this is through a lengthy relationship between the student and the professor. Very rarely can applicants get a stellar recommendation from spending a single semester with the recommender.
What Does a Stellar Recommendation Contain?
- They discuss specifics about the applicant. Don’t let your letter or recommender wallow in generalizations. The most persuasive recommendations are those that speak about the applicant with certainty and in detail. They need to show that you developed a relationship with the recommender over countless interactions.
- They are lengthy. Recommendations that are less than a page are an automatic red flag. Can you really say anything of substance about anyone in 100 words or less? Make sure that every recommendation is a minimum of two pages.
- They are overwhelmingly positive and don’t contain hidden reservations or concerns. A LOR is not a forum for the recommender to discuss negative attributes. Don’t have someone write a letter if you’re not sure they will only say positive things about you. Or, if the person you’re asking express reservations about being able to write a positive letter, don’t pursue it further. This may seem obvious, but we’ve seen enough negative letters to know that it is worth mentioning.
- They are error-free. Again, this should be obvious. Offer to read the letter over. If the recommender is not comfortable with having you read the recommendation, then make sure to stress the importance of proofing. Also, consider it a red flag if they don’t want you to read their recommendation.
Choosing Who Writes Your LORs
- Who do you know really well? Don’t choose the Nobel Prize-winning chair of the English Department if all they’re going to say is that you sat front-row and seemed to pay attention. Instead, choose people who can make the recommendation credible and powerful. They need to be able to illustrate the points they make with anecdotes that show you at your best. And yes! This means sometimes choosing the person with the lesser-known name or the smaller academic reputation to write your letter. It’s the content of the letter, not the title of your recommender, that impresses schools. Choose your TA over the big-name prof.
- Who really likes you? Pick from the people that like you. This seems obvious, but sometimes in the rush to get recommendations lined up, you can miss obvious clues. Having your recommender truly like you is crucial. Professors writing about students they like will actually take the time to write a good recommendation. A recommendation that looks rushed or well thought out says a lot about how they feel about you. In addition, someone who likes you will carefully and thoughtfully choose anecdotes about you. Someone who doesn’t will likely pick the first thing that comes to mind.
- Are they your senior? Choose the voice of experience. If the recommender is not obviously more senior than you, it will seem strange. Make sure it is obvious that someone “higher up” in the ranks is writing on your behalf. Typically, a TA or higher should suffice. Even though titles don’t matter, make sure the recommender accurately describes their relationship to you in the letter.
- They should remember you. The longer the time span between relationships, the less likely a recommender will remember you with enough detail to be useful. This (should) go without saying, steer clear of any high school academic recommenders! If you have been out of school for a long time and applying to law school and struggle with this, here’s a resource for you to check out.
Key Things To Consider When Choosing
- Make sure they’re articulate. Choose professors with good writing skills. Don’t assume all professors are created equal, particularly when it comes to articulating themselves. This is especially important regarding professors that teach subjects not usually known for their writing intensity.
- Diversify. Ask professors from a range of fields and backgrounds. If schools require more than one LOR, find people who’ll provide different and complimentary profiles of your personality and achievements. If you submit similar letters from similar people, they may wonder about the breadth and depth of your skills and interests.
- Align the author of your LOR with your application. Are these people able to support your application’s “marketing strategy”? Remember: every single aspect of the application needs to support the others and build on what has already been said. If you claim to be an indefatigable academic or a crusader for the public good, you need recommenders that can bolster those claims. Otherwise, you will raise red flags.
- Make sure they understand a timeline. Timeliness is important in not only for asking for a letter, but also delivering the letter. Make sure they will take the time to write a letter and send it off in plenty of time. If an instructor is known for taking 2 months instead of 2 weeks to return graded papers, perhaps pick someone else. If you still think they’re the best candidate, make sure they are on a concrete timeline and will stick to it.
Who would have thought that a single letter would require so much thought? Just goes to show, no part of your law school application should be taken for granted. Take the time to choose your recommenders carefully and help them craft a stellar letter. You’ll reap the rewards in the long run.