Building Your Law School Application: Letters of Recommendation

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This summer, we’ll be taking you through each aspect of building your law school application. Today, we’re starting this series with letters of recommendation.

For those of you who are happy with how the June LSAT went, it is time to start thinking about getting your application materials together. If you’re thinking, “Wow, I just got done studying and taking a stressful exam, the last thing I want to do is start jumping through a bunch of application hoops,” well…this is just the beginning. Strap in for three years of academic hoop-jumping, culminating in a much worse examination (excuse my negativity, bar studying is taking its toll on me).

With that lovely introduction aside, this post is going to be the first in a series on how to best build your application materials. First and foremost, I would recommend (hah) getting your letters of recommendation. This may not seem like the most pressing task, but there are two overriding reasons why it should command your attention immediately.

Reason number one: recommenders are slow. Once you make your request, you really have no control over the recommender. Sure, you can send periodic reminders. But those are always awkward and I, for one, always worried that I’d annoy my recommenders and they’d write something snarky about me. You have to be prepared to wait for a while, especially if you are trying to get a popular professor to write on your behalf.

Reason number two: sending out the requests forces you not to procrastinate. A lot of your application materials will take more time and effort than sending out recommendation requests. Your personal statement should be a labor of love and often will feel like carrying and birthing a reluctant child. And you really should complete all the other random essays that schools ask for, which will force you to undergo a similarly unpleasant process. Bottom line—you’ll have more than enough work on your essays and it will be easy to think you’re too busy to put in the requests. Thus, if you don’t put the recommendation requests first, you’ll probably put them off too long and delay your application unnecessarily. Time is of the essence when it comes to admissions and financial aid, so the sooner you check off the letter of recommendation boxes the better.

With that in mind, here are my tips for letters of recommendation.

First, try to make requests in person. If you have the opportunity to go in and speak to your recommender, it is always the best option. You’ll get a better read on how receptive the individual is to recommend you, and it always leaves a better impression on your recommenders mind if you go the extra mile of soliciting them in-person. It is acceptable to ask over the phone or over e-mail, but not preferable.

Regardless of how you ask, your conversation should probably go something like this: exchange pleasantries, note how much you enjoyed taking the professor’s class or working with the recommender, tell the recommender you’re planning on applying to law school, and ask if they’d be willing to write on your behalf. Depending on how close you are with the recommender, it might be a good idea to throw in an anecdote or experience as a way of sparking his or her memory to exactly who you are.

As to that last point, the best recommenders are those who know you well. Based on my review of admission officer interviews and other materials, a close relationship and tailored letter is preferable to a big-name recommender. Seek out those individuals who can actually say something unique about you, beyond merely “this student got an A in my class.”

In the course of your conversation, most recommenders will hopefully ask you if there are any particular qualities they should highlight. I would always ask for emphasis on writing skills, analytical ability, or collegiality, assuming, of course, the recommender can substantiate those qualities.

One last point about that conversation: There are two ways you can ask your professor to submit the letters of recommendation. You could provide a stack of envelopes and stamps and have every recommender send the recommendation separately to a list of law schools you provide. Don’t do that. Alternatively, you can print out the form from LSAC, sign away your right to see the letter, and give that form to your letter writer. That letter will become cached with LSAC with all of your other application materials. Once it’s there, you can decide which letters go to which law schools. That makes this process much easier on both you and your letter writer.

To summarize, you should go in-person to a recommender who knows you well enough that you shouldn’t have to do much in the way of prompting in order to get a positive, tailored letter. In the alternative, you should point the recommender to the pertinent skills and qualities you hope they highlight. And you should do all of this as soon as possible. There is absolutely nothing worse than toiling away at the difficult parts of your application, only to find yourself delayed by one of the most pedantic aspects of the entire process.

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