How to Craft a Great Recommendation Letter
How to Craft a Great Recommendation Letter
Letters of recommendation are a required component of nearly every law school’s application, and most law schools require 2 or 3. Below we address: (1) the role and importance of recommendation letters (2) how to select effective recommenders; (3) how to help your recommenders write the very best letters on your behalf; (4) how to use the LSAC’s Letter of Recommendation (“LOR”) Service; and (5) why you should waive your right to see letters of recommendation.
Effective letters of recommendation help your chances of admission to law school. Particularly good ones can push you from low on the wait list towards the very top, or open the door for someone who is otherwise merely a borderline candidate — but they will never gain you outright admission if your LSAT and GPA numbers are otherwise insufficient. The very best letters all share the same three characteristics:
You should think of letters of recommendation as a way to emphasize in your application certain positive academic accomplishments, character traits, and hardships overcome without sounding self-serving or arrogant. For example, it would be great if you could simply say to an admissions committee: “Look, I’m an exceptionally gifted analytical writer, I am among the most talented Political Science majors at my college, and I know my major advisor thinks I’m one of the smartest students she’s ever taught in her 15 years as a college professor.” But it sounds a whole lot more authentic and effective if your major advisor writes a letter of recommendation and says the same things.
Ineffective letters of recommendation are more likely to harm your chances for law school admission than effective letters are to help you gain admission. That’s because a lukewarm, cookie-cutter, or even slightly negative letter not only fails to give you a strong endorsement, but it also calls into question your own judgment: Why would you ask someone to write a letter of recommendation on your behalf if that recommender does not really want to recommend you in the first place?
Like most applicants, you’ll need to submit more than 1 letter of recommendation. If you select 2 or 3 professors to write recommendation letters, each will obviously comment on your academic accomplishments in their respective classes. Beyond that, however, you may want to coordinate what else they say by suggesting that each highlights different themes, accomplishments, or hardships you’ve overcome in your life. In that way, you can be sure that each major positive in your application is highlighted by a recommender and that they do not spend significant time essentially duplicating their efforts on your behalf by highlighting the same thing.
Unlike everything else in your law school application — your LSAT, your GPA, your personal statement, etc. — the letters of recommendation depend upon the work of someone other than you (i.e., the recommenders). Yet, you have significant power to positively affect the strength of your recommendation letters, and you would be foolish not to follow these simple steps to ensure you obtain the most effective recommendation letters in support of your law school candidacy.
If you’re applying to law school immediately after college or within 2-3 years of graduating, then the very best recommendation letter writers are college professors who know you well academically and personally, and who are themselves impressive individuals.
If you’re applying to law school several years after graduating from college, then ideally you still want to include at least 1 strong letter of recommendation from a college professor with all the traits described above. It’s best to obtain such letters even before you graduate from college. For example, if you think you want to go to law school someday but plan to have another career for several years before doing so, then approach 1 or 2 of the college professors who know your academic and personal qualities best, explain your career and law school plans, and ask them to write a general letter of recommendation before you graduate. This is helpful in at least 2 ways. First, your professor is apt to write a more effective letter while you are still in college and in regular contact with him or her. Second, you can ask your professor to update this letter several years later when you’re ready to apply to law school. During the interim period, make sure to cultivate your relationship with the professor by staying in regular contact, providing short updates every 6 months or a year on career and life developments. Then, when you’re ready to go to law school, you can send your professor his or her draft letter — as well as all the other materials listed in “The Information They Need” section (below) — and have a meaningful conversation about what his or her letter should include, secure in the knowledge that you’ve kept them in the loop of your life.
Beyond a college professor’s recommendation letter, though, it certainly makes sense to include a work-related recommendation letter from a boss with whom you’ve developed a significant working relationship. The hallmark of an effective work-related letter is a close working relationship with a supervisor for a period of at least a year, during which time you’ve produced significant analytical, written work-product that has been used in a professional setting. Maybe you performed high-level market research at a financial services firm, and your work-product formed the basis of presentations your boss made to secure client business. Or maybe you analyzed reports for a non-profit and synthesized this into a 20-page report on the state of academic and interest-group research on climate change that your boss used to prepare for industry panel discussions. These kinds of close work relationships and work-product allow a boss to write a letter that goes well beyond commending your ability to show up at work on time.
Beyond the typical college professor and career boss recommendation letters, you should carefully consider the particular strengths, themes, and stand-out achievements that can elevate you above a pack of applicants with your same academic credentials. Whatever these unique characteristics are, make sure that those who write your recommendation letters stress at least some of them, and if your professor or boss is not in a position to do so, then you should consider asking a non-traditional recommender to write a letter on your behalf that speaks to 1 or more of those characteristics.
Helping your recommenders write effective letters is easy. Just give them the information they need, when they need it. Here’s how.
Here’s the information your recommenders need:
You should contact your professors to schedule an in person meeting no later than the first week of your senior year to discuss the possibility of them writing letters of recommendation. If you have already graduated from college and cannot meet in person, then make sure to set up a phone call during late August or early September before you apply to law school later that Fall. During your meeting, you should explain that’s it your intention to apply to law school and then ask them directly: “Would you feel comfortable writing me a strong letter of recommendation?” Pay close attention to your professors’ reactions — do they seem willing and enthusiastic? If they display any reluctance or you otherwise feel they would not write a strong, ringing endorsement of your law school candidacy, then politely move on to the next professor.
At the meetings you set up, you should bring all the materials listed above, discuss the reasons why youwant to attend law school, and ask whether your professor is willing to write an enthusiastic letter of recommendation on your behalf. Be patient and offer to answer any questions your professor may have–remember, this is your time to convey in no uncertain terms that you greatly value a legal education and believe you would excel in law school and beyond. Make sure to go over all the materials and highlight the deadline to complete and mail the letters. While you’ll need to do a lot of the talking in these meetings, make sure you also pay close attention to your professors’ reactions, because by the end of each meeting you need to be certain that he or she is willing to write a letter that will set you apart from other applicants with similar credentials. If you cannot get a good read on the professor’s inclinations, then it is appropriate to ask politely whether the professor has any reservations about enthusiastically recommending you. If you have any doubts about the willingness of your professor to write a very strong letter, then politely move on to the next professor.
The Law School Admission Council (LSAC) not only administers the LSAT, but also provides a very helpful Credential Assembly Service (LSDAS), which “collects the U.S. and Canadian academic records of law school applicants and summarizes the undergraduate work according to a standard 4.0 system to simplify the admission process.” The LSDAS report consists of: (1) an academic summary report; (2) LSAT scoring and writing sample(s); (3) copies of your undergraduate, graduate and law/professional school transcripts; and (4) copies of recommendation letters, if requested or required. Almost every ABA-approved law school, as well as many non-ABA approved law schools, requires applicants to use the LSDAS when applying to law school.
The letter of recommendation collection and distribution service (“LOR”) is available to all applicants who have registered for the LSDAS. As the LSAC succinctly states:
The LSAC website has a list of ABA-approved law schools and their letter of recommendation requirements here.
After mailing his or her letter(s) to the LSDAS service, you and your recommender both will receive a confirmation email once the LSDAS has received and electronically processed the letter. This usually takes about a week.
The LSDAS has you categorize your letters as either “General” or “Targeted”. Typically, you send General Letters to all the law schools you apply to, while sending Targeted Letters either to only 1 particular law school or a series of law schools with the same specialty program, like joint JD/MBA or Tax Law. You may submit up to 4 General Letters and an unlimited number of Targeted Letters to the LSDAS.
Many applicants wonder whether they should waive their right to see any recommendation letters written on their behalf. Both the standard LSAC LOR Form and many law schools’ application/LOR forms ask applicants whether they consent to waive their right to see recommendation letters after law schools receive them in the application process. The temptation to read such letters is obvious: Who doesn’t want to know what recommenders said about them?
Resist this temptation! If you do not waive, then the recommenders you select will be wary of giving an unvarnished assessment of your academic abilities and character. Plus, admissions committees understandably will question not only whether the letter truly represents what a recommender thinks about you, but also why you lack self-confidence in the overall recommendation process. There is simply nothing to be gained by failing to waive other than to satisfy your own prurient interests.
Trust your judgment in selecting the correct recommenders. And if it turns out you made a rare mistake in judgment, you cannot avoid the consequences of that judgment just by knowing who said what.