Law School Admissions: Letters of Recommendation

    Check out the fourth installment of a nine-part web series I recently recorded with PowerScore founder and author of the PowerScore LSAT Bible Series, Dave Killoran. You can also find it on the PowerScore YouTube channel.



    DAVE: Alright, let's move on to the next element that we want to talk about, which are the very important letters of recommendation. I'm going to let Anne talk a little bit about this, because I know she has strong feelings about the letters of rec.

    ANNE: Thanks, Dave. I do have very strong feelings about the letters of recommendation, and it comes primarily from the fact that, for nine out of every ten students I talk to, the first words out of their mouth when I talk about letters of recommendation are, "Well, that [letter] doesn't really matter, does it?" Well, I'm here to tell you that it does. I won't lie: Obviously, the GPA and the LSAT score are certainly important, and yes, in many cases that's how schools decide who they're going to look at and who they're not. But, when they do look at you, that's when the letters of recommendation, the addendums, the résumé, etc., start becoming important. You can literally write your way out of an acceptance if the letters of recommendation, the personal statement, and the résumé are not up to par.

    So let's talk a little bit about what the letters of recommendation actually are, because they matter and they're important and, moreover, you have control over them. That's incredibly important, and it's so very empowering. You have control over what people can say about you [in the law school application]--you always do.

    Take a look at what a letter of recommendation is. It is overwhelmingly positive; it is lengthy; it is anecdotal. Now, think about what that means. What is an anecdote? It is a story about you. It is a personal, specific story that presents an aspect about you that is not represented anywhere else in the application. You have a chance to influence the way admissions officers look at you because they're looking at what somebody else thinks about you. Moreover, [the letters of recommendation] are also personal. They're anecdotal, they're personal, they're lengthy, they're overwhelmingly positive--and they're well-written and heavily proofed.

    You have to ask yourself, and you have to remember: Who is your audience? Your audience is the heads of admissions at top law schools. What do you think they're going to think if they see a recommendation letter that comes along that's not well-written, it's not proofed, it's got typos, it's filled with generalizations, and it says things like, "Jimmy is a very nice boy. I enjoyed seeing him at the front of the class every day." What are they going to think about that? What does that say about Jimmy? That says nothing about Jimmy. How about something like, "James is a wonderful student. I remember having so many conversations with him after class, drinking coffee. We used to share thoughts about 'this' and 'that'. I remember the time he came over to my house, and we talked about 'this' and we did 'that'." [The second example] is personal, it's impactful, and it leaves an overwhelmingly positive experience with the Admissions Committee that [makes them say], "Wow, this person actually knew the applicant." That's [the letter of recommendation's] purpose, to present a completely different side of the applicant that the applicant can't do on their own. It allows you to toot your own horn, without actually being the one blowing the trumpet.

    The one big thing I want to really bring up is [this]: More often than not, I have students [asking] me, "Who should I pick for my letters of recommendation? I have this big[-name] professor, and he was awesome--he's written about twenty books, he's the head of the department, everybody knows who he is." So then I ask them, "Well, what classes did you take with them?"

    Student: "I was in his big lecture course, it was amazing."
    Anne: "Does he know who you are? Could he pick you out of a lineup?"
    Student: "Well, you know, I showed up at his office hours a couple of times."
    Anne: "Okay. What can he say [about you]?"
    Student: "Well, we had a nice chat."
    Anne: "What did you talk about?"
    Student: "Oh, we talked about a paper."

    Now, you ask me: What exactly can this [recommender] tell you [about you]? Can he tell you who you are, how you talk, how you think? Can he say anything positive and specific? No.

    How about the TA in that class that you shared hour upon hour upon hour with three times a week, and knows you inside and out, and can recall specific anecdotes? Who do you want [to write your letter]: The Nobel Prize-winning professor that everybody knows but can't say one thing about you, or the TA that's just working his way up but can talk a mile a minute for an hour-and-a-half about you and just say positive things? TITLES AREN'T EVERYTHING. What is everything are the overwhelmingly positive, personal anecdotes that can be told through a letter of recommendation.

    Now, take a look at what [the letters of recommendation] are not: They are not regurgitations of your résumé. (As a matter of fact, your personal statement is not a regurgitation of your résumé either, but we'll talk about that in just a bit.) You need to be able to tell your recommenders what to say, and make sure that they don't repeat things that you already been said elsewhere. Just like everything else in the application, your letters of recommendation are valuable, valuable real estate. You don't want to waste them on repetition. You want to make sure they bring something new to the table.

    So, they're not regurgitations of your résume; they're not impersonal generalizations; most importantly, they are not fainthearted and they're not lukewarm. If somebody can't stand up and shout from the hilltops that you are completely awesome, then you don't want them as your recommender. You need somebody that loves you and wants to see you succeed to be writing these letters of recommendation for you.

    DAVE: And let me second some of Anne's thoughts there. You know, one of the great things about the letters of recommendation is [that] you have control over them. You have the ability to talk to the recommender and let them know that there are certain aspects of your application, or your person, that you would like them to talk about. A lot of people just walk up to whoever it is they want to have do the recommendation and say, "Can you write me a recommendation?" They hand them the form and say, "Thanks so much," and they leave. That is not the right way to do this.

    The better way to do this is to actually give them some documentation (the résumé, for example, is a great thing) to help remind them of all the different achievements that you have accomplished in your career, in your academic life, and so forth, and to let them know, "This is what I would really like to see from you. It would really help me if you would write it in this particular fashion." Give them a synopsis, or an overview of what you would like from them. Having been asked to write recommendations before, I can tell you that, when students do that, it makes life so much easier, because now I know what the student wants from me, and I can respond to that. If somebody just walks up to me and says, "I need a recommendation," I'm like, "Well, what part do you want to talk about? If you just want me to be broad, it's going to feel broad." And that's one of things about these letters of recommendation that is really critical: You cannot have them be generalized. In [this video] we've talked about what they are, and we have that idea that they are anecdotal; literally, they're very anecdotal because they're telling stories about you, and they're personal, as well. We want something here that is actually goint to be talking about you.

    Anne gave a great example of the difference between a recommendation like, "Oh, I really liked that person; he was a lot of fun in class," versus, "Alright, I've spoken to this person." The whole idea of a generalized letter of recommendation is something that a lot of people feel they can do by just giving a few ideas. NO. Don't just give a few broad ideas; I want many, specific insights into your character, your person, so that if I'm on the Admissions Committee, I can really get a sense of who you are.

    And, of course, the great thing is that letters of recommendation don't have to be all about the positives. Recommenders are a great avenue to solve a problem that you might be having. If you know, for example, that there's something in your background that is somewhat negative, you don't necessarily have to address it yourself. Having a recommender address it is incredibly powerful. If a recommender comes in here and says, "Well, I know that there was a problem with John several years ago; he was actually arrested. Let me tell you my take on that so you have a better understanding [of the situation]," and then they explain it--all of sudden the Admissions Committee will take the words of the recommenders more or less at face value, and they're going to give that a lot of credence.

    There's different ways to use these letters of recommendation. Don't just hand it off to your recommender and say, "Please give me a general recommendation." Give them notes. Give them a good idea of what you would love them to say, and make sure they understand that the longer [the letter] is, the better that it will be, and that the more detailed it is, the more powerful and compelling that it will be.

    Now, I also want to underscore the idea that Anne talked about: Do you want someone with a big, impressive title, or do you want somebody who actually knows you a lot better? She said that titles aren't everything, and I cannot agree with that more. I once listened to one of the Yale [Law School] admissions staff talk about recommendations, and what he said was very clear about it. He said, "If [the recommender] doesn't know you, I'm going to know that immediately. I will be able to sense that within the writing, and guess what? That's a big black mark against you." [The Admissions Committee] wants to read recommendations from people who actually truly know who you are, who understand your character. If you choose somebody who does not know you, what you are saying--what you are conveying to the Admissions Committee--is that it doesn't really matter what these people have to say, and that their input is of no value. It is of value. And, what's worse, the Admissions Committee will know that that's what you're thinking and they will penalize you heavily for that. So, make sure that you choose somebody who understands who you are.