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Appendix E: Letters of Recommendation
With special thanks to Kimberly Chin. Published November 2009
An important element of the law school admissions process is securing letters of recommendation. Many schools, such as U.C. Berkeley Boalt Hall School of Law view your personal statement and letters of recommendation as a combined 1/3 of your application, equal in value to the critical components of GPA and LSAT. Letters of recommendation provide law schools with a candid assessment of your abilities, and a good letter of recommendation can expand upon or reveal aspects of yourself that may not be otherwise apparent in your application. A strong letter of recommendation can improve your chances of admittance; however, it cannot make up for any serious weaknesses in your record. Although you may at first feel as though you cannot control the recommendation letters component of the application because you are not writing the letters, you can strategically maximize the positive impact that letters of recommendation will have. The purpose of the recommendation letter, as Dean Jeanette Leach of Santa Clara explains, is to provide “a testament to your academic abilities, and show that you participate in class, and are dedicated to projects.”
The best letters of recommendation are long (2-3 pages), glowing, detailed accolades from a university professor who knows a student well, has the highest regard for his or her intellectual capabilities, and praises the student as “one of the best students I’ve seen in my long career.” These are the kind of letters that make admissions committee members’ eyes pop and set their hearts racing with excitement. Short of this ideal, recommendations that positively discuss your intellectual abilities, course load or work product in comparison to other students or coworkers (“She is best student I had in the class” or “He took the most difficult courses in the department”) weigh heavily with admissions officers. In addition, letters that can comment in specific details on your character and goals in addition to your intellectual strengths are very beneficial.
Because letters of recommendation require you to work and coordinate with your recommender, you must plan ahead. Give yourself enough time to prepare the required materials, including a copy of your resume and personal statement, if possible. Give your recommender plenty of time, so that he or she will write the best letter possible. Prepare during the summer in anticipation of approaching your recommenders in late August or early September, before school or work gets too hectic.
Before you request your letters of recommendation, familiarize yourself with the Letter of Recommendation Service on the Law School Admission Council (“LSAC”) website (www.lsac.org). This service is extremely useful since it requires that your recommenders submit only one letter of recommendation to the Law School Data Assembly Service (“LSDAS”), who will then send it with your LSAT score report to all the law schools to which you apply.
The LSDAS divides your letters of recommendation into two types: general and targeted. General letters are those intended for any and all law schools to which you apply, while targeted letters are written specifically for certain law schools or a particular program common to several law schools (i.e. Environmental Law program). LSDAS allows you to submit up to four general letters of recommendation and an unlimited number of targeted letters. You can also direct general and targeted letters of recommendation to specific schools so that each school will receive only the letters you want them to read. The LSAC web site has more information on directing your letters of recommendation.
LSDAS has a standard form that you must submit to ensure proper processing of your recommendation letters. You fill out the form online, print it out, sign it and give it to your recommender. If you choose to use the Letter of Recommendation Service, this form must be submitted with your letter of recommendation in order for LSDAS to process the recommendation. Once your letter of recommendation has been sent to LSAC with the letter of recommendation form, it typically takes anywhere from a couple of days to a week for your letter of recommendation to appear in your LSDAS account. You will receive an email confirmation when LSAC has successfully processed and uploaded your recommendation to your account.
Requirements for Letters of Recommendation
The majority of law schools require letters of recommendation, but the required number of recommendations often varies from school to school. Many law schools require two recommendations but accept up to four. You should check each school’s application for their individual requirements. Dean Edward Tom of UC Berkeley Boalt Hall teases overachievers, “3 letters of recommendation are ok, even 4 is fine, however 5 is probably pushing it.”
Law schools strongly prefer letters of recommendation from faculty members at your undergraduate institution because these are usually the people best able to comment on your intellectual and academic qualifications. If you are currently an undergraduate or are a recent graduate, your first two letters of recommendation should be from instructors. A recommendation from an employer or internship supervisor can be a valuable third or fourth recommendation. For applicants who have been out of school for several years, an academic recommendation may be hard to obtain, but it is best to have at least one. In this instance, a letter from an employer would be a satisfactory second recommendation. As Dean Leach of Santa Clara explains, “If you have been out of school for a number of years, having a letter from an employer is ok. It should attest to your abilities and your work ethic.”
Letters of recommendation should be written on letterhead and signed by your recommender. If they are returned to you before being submitted to the law school or LSAC, the recommender should return the letter to you in an envelope and sign across the seal.
Selecting a Good Recommender
When considering possible recommenders, think about the classes you took and your performance in those classes. A letter from the professor who taught your elective photography class is less valuable than a letter from an upper-level class in your major. Recommendations from professors who taught you in seminars or small lecture classes are best because those professors were able to observe you in a smaller academic environment. Professors who taught courses with a heavy emphasis on reading and writing and/or critical thinking and analysis are also ideal, since admissions committees are looking for evaluations of your intellectual qualifications as well as your writing and oral communication skills. The best and most thorough letters of recommendation will generally come from professors who mentored you during an independent study or thesis project.
Ideally, your letters of recommendation should come from professors who taught classes in which you excelled, who know you personally, and who have had ample opportunity to evaluate you. If you are currently in college, work to cultivate that type of relationship: participate in class discussions, go to office hours, do an independent study with the professor you respect, invite your professor out to coffee to talk about your goals, etc. If you mention a particular professor or dean in your personal statement, try to have that person write a letter for you that corroborates the claim(s) you make in the personal statement. If you attend a large university and are not able to cultivate a relationship with any of your professors, consider cultivating one with a T.A. or lecturer who has worked closely with you. Dean Ed Tom states, “It would be better to get a letter from a teaching assistant who knows you very well than a professor who does not.” If you do not plan on applying to law schools right after college, be sure to keep in touch with one or two of your professors. Send them updates on what you have been doing since graduation, and be sure to drop by and say hello if you ever go back to campus. The key is to stand out and be memorable (in a good way!).
Overall, you want your recommenders to be professionals who can write strong, detailed and enthusiastic letters in support of your application. The rank or fame of your recommender matters less, and can, in some cases, leave a bad impression. Do not submit a cursory letter from a famous judge or senator instead of a substantial letter from a professor. Law schools are not as interested in your connections as much as they are interested in knowing about your academic strengths and abilities. The best letters of recommendation come from those who know you well, not those who are known well. As Ed Tom, Dean of Admissions at U.C. Berkeley Boalt Hall School of Law states, “[l]etters from famous people whom you met once, friends of the family, or a judge for whom you babysat are not helpful.” Jeanette Leach, Dean of Admissions at Santa Clara University Law School concurs. She states “we are looking for letters written by people who know you fairly well. We will be more impressed by a letter from someone who knows you really well than a letter from a famous person who does not really know you at all.” Dean Leach explains, “For example, if you worked for the Governor, but he does not know you, a letter from him will not take you very far. However, if the Governor’s assistant knows you quite well, then get him to write you a letter.” Dean Leach also cautions against lukewarm recommendations:
Requesting Your Letter of Recommendation
Once you have identified your recommenders (be sure to identify more recommenders than you need, allowing for the possibility that one may decline your request), preferably meet with them in person to request your letter of recommendation. If meeting in person is geographically impossible, an email or phone call will suffice. Be prepared to tell your recommender why you are applying to law school, why you would make a good law student, and why you want them to write the recommendation. Do not be afraid to ask whether they think they will be able to provide you with a strong recommendation. If your recommender expresses hesitation, move on. Since you will not see the finished letter (you should definitely waive your right to view the letter), you want to be sure that you will receive a glowing recommendation. Remember, you want a letter of recommendation that is positive and enthusiastic.
If your professor or employer agrees to write the recommendation, provide him or her with the following documents:
These documents will help your recommender craft a good letter of recommendation by reminding him or her of your past accomplishments. You may also want to include in a written format your reasons for attending law school and why you have chosen this person to write the recommendation, just in case the letter is written long after your meeting.
During your meeting, you should review the process and requirements for submitting letters of recommendation to LSAC with your recommender and negotiate a deadline for writing the recommendation. Since professors and employers are busy people, allow at least three to four weeks for your recommendation to be completed. Be sure to tell your recommender that you would like to be notified when they send in your letter of recommendation. That way, you can follow up with your recommender appropriately. As the deadline you’ve set approaches, send your recommender a friendly email or two reminding him or her of the deadline. Your recommenders will appreciate this enormously. Do not feel that this is a bother to them (but also don’t be pushy, needy or send emails every day). A reminder can be a simple email, as follows:
As with all communication with your recommender, your reminders should be cordial and professional.
Do Not Draft Your Own Letter of Recommendation
Law schools do not look kindly upon letters of recommendation that have been drafted by applicants. Admissions officers have stated that they can tell if an applicant has drafted his or her own letter of recommendation because it either mimics too closely the applicant’s own writing style or fails to effectively capture the point of view that a recommender inherently possesses. Professors and employers, by virtue of their position, have a perspective and a point of evaluation that is nearly impossible for an applicant to emulate. An applicant cannot completely evaluate himself objectively in terms of his intellectual ability and most definitely cannot discuss himself in a comparative manner, a quality found in the best letters of recommendation. Drafting your own letter of recommendation if a recommender asks you to is, essentially, consciously choosing to submit a weak letter of recommendation.
If a recommender requests that you draft a letter for their editing, respectfully decline and see if the recommender would consider writing one with help from you. If the recommender agrees, provide him or her with a letter detailing your qualifications with examples. This way, your recommender can see what should be included in your recommendation without you actually drafting it. If the recommender strongly presses for a draft, seriously consider an alternative recommender.
In some instances, a recommender may ask for a draft because they are unfamiliar with writing a letter of recommendation for law school. If that is the case, many college career services can provide guidelines and instructions on how to write law school letters of recommendation, and there are many excellent books available that explain how to write a recommendation for law school.
To Waive or Not to Waive
When submitting letters of recommendation, LSAC as well as many law schools’ individual forms give the option of waiving your right to see your letters after they have been sent to the law schools. Admissions officers strongly favor letters of recommendation from applicants who have waived their right to see the completed letter, since the main purpose of a letter of recommendation is to provide a candid assessment of your abilities. The waiver assures the admissions committee that the letter is a true, objective evaluation of the applicant and that the applicant has in no way directly influenced the final recommendation. Do choose to waive your right; otherwise, you may run the risk of the admissions committee placing little weight on your letters of recommendation. This does not mean that you cannot be active in the process of writing your recommendation. For example, the information you provide a recommender about yourself greatly shapes the content of the letter. In the end, your recommender should send the final version directly to LSAC or provide it to you in an envelope with a signature across the seal. Overall, if you have selected good recommenders, who you know will provide you with strong, detailed and enthusiastic recommendations, you should not be afraid to sign the waiver.
To conclude, while others are writing your letters of recommendation, your preparations and actions can directly affect how well these letters reflect upon you and can make the difference between being accepted or rejected from the law school of your choice.