Letters of Recommendation and How to Get Them

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This is a post from our friend Anna Ivey over at www.annaivey.com. She’s a law school admissions expert and former Dean of Admissions at a top ten law school, so her site is a great resource for anyone applying.

“You’re so beautiful, you could be a part-time model.”

That’s Jemaine from Flight of the Conchords, making up an awesome song that he thinks is actually paying a great compliment to a pretty girl he meets at a party. When I saw that episode recently, I thought of applications, because it’s a great example of damning with faint praise, one of the common things that can go wrong with recommendation letters.

Law school applicants lose a lot of sleep over recommendations, because recommendations are the piece of the application process over which they have the least control. You ask people for recommendations, they say yes, you get them the forms, and you hope for the best. You hope that they put real effort into the letter; you hope that they get the letter off on time; you hope that they don’t unintentionally damn you with faint praise (“he tries hard,” “she is very punctual”).

And sometimes, recommenders intend to damn you with faint praise. Almost no letters are overtly negative, so recommenders find subtle ways to communicate that they are not impressed. That leads me to tip #1 for law school recommendations:

1. When you ask, give them an out.

The best way to ensure a stellar recommendation is to be a stellar student. Do you actually know how you stacked up against everyone else? You might think you knocked your professors’ socks off, but it’s better to find out for sure. When you approach potential recommenders, ask if they feel that they can write you a strong recommendation, and if their reaction is anything less than enthusiastic, back off. Don’t try to sweet-talk them or guilt-trip them or bully them into writing you a letter. Even if you succeed, they’ll just write you a crummy letter. Instead, be glad that they were honest with you, because that enables you to keep looking for the right recommender.

Writing a thoughtful letter takes time and effort, so that’s another possible out you can offer them. If they don’t think they can make time for a recommendation now/this fall/by deadline X, it’s good for you to know upfront. Unfortunately, a lot of recommenders say yes when they shouldn’t, often because they’re trying to be nice. Those kinds of letters are almost never great ones, either because the person doesn’t put much effort into the letter, or because he procrastinates so long that he ends up jeopardizing your deadlines. So if a recommender says no, that’s actually the better outcome in that scenario.

2. Academic recommendations are preferred over non-academic ones.

Admissions officers use recommendation letters to try to predict how you’ll fare as a student in a law school classroom. For that reason, law schools typically prefer academic recommenders over non-academic ones. By “academic,” I mean people who have taught you, as their student, in their classroom. “Non-academic” would include bosses and supervisors, colleagues, best friends, friends of the family, sports coaches, academic advisors, pastors and rabbis, your ex-girlfriend’s dad’s best friend who is a judge, and Very Prominent People you may or may not have met. And if an otherwise good academic recommender doesn’t know you well on a personal level, that’s perfectly OK, because the main purpose of the letter is not to offer opinions about you on a personal level. Don’t confuse an academic recommendation with a character reference.

If you’ve been out of school for a while and it’s therefore not realistic for you to find someone who can write you a meaningful academic recommendation after all that time, the next best option is a professional recommendation. That recommender should be someone you report to (or have recently reported to, if your current boss doesn’t know you’re applying), not a peer or a subordinate.

3. Quality of the relationship matters more than job title.

A thoughtful, substantive recommendation from your graduate student Teaching Assistant will be more valuable to an admissions officer than a generic recommendation that was phoned in at the last second by a full professor who may or may not recognize you as the guy who sat in the 16th row, who never graded your exams or papers, who never led your discussion groups, and who wouldn’t know who you are if he bumped into you on the street.

4. Writing/reading/discussion-intensive classes are most relevant.

Because law school classes tend to be very reading-intensive and discussion-based (whether truly Socratic or not), try to pick recommenders who have been able to assess your performance in that kind of learning environment. Because legal research and writing are also very important in your law school training, writing-intensive classes (involving academic, expository papers, as distinguished from creative writing) are also useful for academic recommendations.

5. Context is key.

It’s helpful for recommenders to be able to compare you to other students. Are you in the top 10% of students he’s ever taught, or taught this year? Did you get the highest grade on the exam? Were you the only student she nominated that year for the school’s prize for best thesis?

6. Examples help support conclusions.

Just as conclusions in legal briefs need to be backed up in order to be persuasive, your recommendations should include a few anecdotes to back up and illustrate the recommender’s opinions about you. A list of adjectives (even superlatives) is not very helpful — or memorable — without examples.

7. Do not ask to see copies.

It’s tempting to want to see what’s in your letters, but it’s bad form to ask. If a recommender volunteers to show you a draft or a final copy of the letter, that’s great, because then you can decide whether you actually want to use the letter or not (you can mark recommendation letters inactive in your LSAC account, meaning they never get sent, and the recommendation writer never has to know), but the initiative to show you the letter has to come entirely from the recommender. It shouldn’t be a request — even a polite, subtle nudge — from you.

8. Don’t write your own letters.

Some recommenders — especially professional recommenders — will tell you that they’re too busy to write the letter themselves and that you should write a letter for them to sign. Don’t take them up on that offer. For one thing, admissions officers wouldn’t consider that kosher; at best the practice is considered ethically murky. The recommendation letter should come from the recommender, not from you. (That’s taking delegation too far.)

Another problem is that the letters you write about yourself will almost never be as strong as the letters your genuinely motivated recommenders would write about you, for a simple reason: unless you’re just making stuff up, you can’t add the layer of opinion or put yourself in context in a way that makes a recommendation effective. Can you fake the perspective and experience and judgment of your recommender, especially when comparing you to others? Do you feel comfortable saying you’re the best student/paralegal/intern she’s ever taught/supervised/mentored? Before you sit down to write your own letter, you’re probably excited because you think, “Woohoo! I can write anything I want! I have total control!” But when you actually try to draft something plausible and flattering and good, you find that it’s really, really hard. If recommenders ask for your input, it’s fine to generate examples and anecdotes — to refresh their memories about facts that will ultimately support whatever conclusions they choose to draw — but you should leave the opining and editorializing to them.

And finally, it’s very hard to write in someone else’s voice. It doesn’t help your candidacy if your recommendation letter has the same voice as your other application components. You might think you’ve tweaked the letter sufficiently to make it not sound like you, but that’s hard for you to gauge objectively; you’re too close to your own writing style.

Bottom line: if a recommender tells you to write your own letter, keep looking.

9. Be thankful.

Good recommenders don’t spend just time and effort on their letters; they are also spending their reputational capital on you. You are asking them to get behind your candidacy and vouch for you, and that means a lot. After you’ve submitted your applications, make sure to stay in touch with your recommenders to let them know the outcome. It’s frustrating for them when they put themselves out there for applicants who then fall off the face of the earth. It’s simple courtesy to thank them and let them know where you end up.

My final piece of advice is to adopt a zen-like attitude about your recommendations once you’ve carefully chosen who will write for you. The recommendations are out of your hands after that. I’ve also found that the amount of agonizing applicants do over their recommendations is completely disproportionate to their importance in the process. I would estimate that 90% of letters don’t change the outcome in any way; they merely validate the decision the admissions officer would have made anyway based on the rest of the application. That’s a lot of combined man hours and rigmarole to be spent — by you, your recommenders, and admissions officers — on a document that adds so little value. Perhaps that’s why Northwestern Law School — always the most innovative — has finally done away with the requirement altogether. For every other school that still requires them, though, you can increase the chances that your letter will have a positive impact by following the guidelines above.

Good luck with your recommendations, and please share your own recommendation experiences, tales of woe, or happy news.

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