With the admissions season starting to heat up, over on our Law School Admissions Discussion Forum we've been getting questions about the letters of recommendation (LOR). There's a lot of confusion over who to choose and what they should write, and since a poor recommendation can really hurt your admissions chances, you can't afford a mistake here. So let's talk about how to get the best possible recommendations.
The first decision you have is, who should you choose to write your recommendations? The key determinant here is how well the writer knows you. You need a recommender that can speak about you with authority, and who can lend insights into your thinking and writing, as well as your ability to make decisions and perform as part of a community. In other words, someone who can be specific about you and your skills. Note that there's no mention of how famous or important the writer is, because that actually isn't very important. If you know someone famous or powerful (say the governor of your state) and he or she knows you quite well, then yes, that would be a winning combination. But what if the governor only knows your parents well, and doesn't know you all that well? Then that would be a resounding No. You'd actually be better off with your shift manager at a retail store because your manager could speak about the type of person you are and use actual examples from working with you. The governor? Nope, he doesn't know you at all and so he can't speak specifically about you.
The classic case where this choice comes up is when you take a class from a well-known "big name" professor. The tendency is to want to choose that person as a recommender. But if he or she does not know you, then the big name prof isn't a good choice. You'd be better off with the class TA that you got to know very well. On the surface, most people would say choose the professor, but often the TA is the better selection. It all comes down to how well each person knows you, and I've had multiple law school deans tell me that they can tell when someone has been selected for their name brand, and if they don't know the applicant, it's a solid negative.
So, bottom line here is that you must choose someone who knows you well. This is extremely important because of the second choice you make, which involves what you are asking them to do. Recently, Prelaw Guru Peg Cheng wrote about When and How to Ask for Letters of Recommendation on our blog. In that article, she gives solid tips on how to approach potential recommenders, including that you should write a brief cover letter to the recommender. I'd add a few lines to that letter and ask your recommender to be as specific as possible when discussing your candidacy. This is really where your recommendations can stand apart from others. I've seen far too many LORs that contain phrases such as "John is an excellent student who performed well in my class, and I feel confident that he can perform equally well in the demanding environment of law school." At first glance, that doesn't sound terrible. And it's certainly not horrible, but it doesn't really say a whole lot about John, at least not specifically. Compare it to this line from a recommendation I read recently: "John has been one of my favorite students of the last few years. He's an eager participant in class, and he often helps take the discussion to higher levels and in unexpected directions. He's well prepared, and he argues his points passionately but without rancor. He actually keeps me on my toes!" And that was just one of multiple points about this applicant that were all in the same vein. When compared side by side, the two comments look starkly different despite both being positive: the former comment is somewhat hollow although well-meaning, and the latter is an outstanding endorsement at the highest level. Which one do you think catches the eye of the admissions committee?
Of course, there's no way to get the second comment above unless the recommender knows you extremely well. This is why we emphasize that point so much. However, that also takes time and effort. You can't expect to take a single class from a professor and get the kind of comment I quoted above. And that means that you have to cultivate your potential recommenders over time. If you are in school, make a point to talk to your professors and TAs. Get to know them both in class and hopefully out of class. They are people too, and like everyone else they enjoy meeting new and interesting people. Make sure you work on getting to know them just as hard as you'd work on learning the subject they teach. If you are out in the working world, hopefully you can maintain contact with a professor or two, but also work on forming relationships with your managers and co-workers, and perhaps form a mentoring relationship with one of the more senior people in your company.
Several years back I recorded a short video on the letters of rec, and everything in that video is still applicable, and it expands on some of the ideas above. Check it out if you are looking for more information on this subject.
If you have any questions about LORs, or if you face a choice of who to choose, please feel free to ask me about it in the comments section below, or post it over on our Forum (I get questions like that all the time, such as this interesting LOR choice).
Image: "Letters to Aussie MPs" courtesy of Donna Benjamin.