There Are Recommendations and Then There Are Recommendations…

Who? How Many? These are the questions that invariably cross an applicant’s mind when contemplating his/her letters of recommendation. Admittedly, identifying two individuals who are ready, willing and able to write you a good a letter of recommendation is often no easy feat. It’s at the very least harder than finding someone to, say, water your plants over Labor Day weekend. However, we’re here to help. At W&L Law, we want to take the stress and uncertainty out of the law school application process (sorry, there’s not much we can do about the LSAT). By observing the following simple steps and trusting the sage counsel of your native applicant intuition/common sense, you can enjoy true peace of mind and a no-fuss, no-muss letter of recommendation experience.

Before I begin, close your eyes. How much does your life weigh? Imagine for a second you’re carrying a backpack. I want you to feel the straps on the shoulders…Wait, that’s not the right speech. Let’s start over. Here it is. Close your eyes. You are an admissions officer at a law school. Ah, the other side of the manila folder. What sort of recommendation letter would impress you? Would it have a fancy letterhead? Would the signatory be someone famous? What would you want the letter to say? How would you want it to say it? How many letters would it take to convince you a given candidate was really worthy of admission to your law school? These are the very questions that should cross your mind as you begin this process.

Let’s start slow: How many letters of recommendation should you submit? This is a fairly common question, and to be honest, every year, we see applications with six or seven (or more) letters of recommendation (this is way too many, by the way). Again, you are an admissions officer. You have over 4,000 applications to review in a given year. Would you really want to read seven letters of recommendation? Would you even want to read four? Particularly if you only asked for (i.e. required) two? In fairness to all your applicants, do you even have the time to read more than two or three letters of recommendation? How would you feel if you just finished reading your 100th file in a row, and the next application you opened had five or even seven letters of recommendation?

We require two letters of recommendation, but we will accept as many as you wish to include with your file. As a cautionary note, however, we encourage you to identify two recommenders who really know you well, and any more than three letters of recommendation is really too much. Remember: As previously noted, when applying to law school, it pays to follow the rules. Blatantly disregarding obvious application instructions is NEVER endearing. After all, when’s the last time you heard someone say, “Isn’t that just wonderful? What a guy. He completely ignored our instructions. How novel. How fresh. Just the sort of person we’re looking for: someone who believes basic rules do not apply to him.”? Hopefully, this is not a common colloquialism in your social circles.

While we appreciate the multiple perspectives additional letters often provide, due to the volume of applications we receive, we have limited time to spend with each file, and too many letters can do your application a disservice. Lawyers are decision-makers, and during the application process you will have to make some tough decisions. For example, rather than having six people write recommendations on your behalf, pick the two recommenders among this number who can provide the best and most complete picture of you as an applicant and a future law student. Two good letters will say far more than seven average ones, and making this choice now will save you from frustrating and offending your file’s reviewer (always a good thing). And, for the sake argument, let’s assume we offend easily. Really easily.

So, now that we’ve discussed how many, let’s talk about the “who”: Who should write your letters of recommendation? In keeping with the general “role play” theme of this blog post, I would argue you actually know the answer to this question. To paraphrase a modern cowboy poet, this really ain’t no thinking thing. Cast your memory back to that manila file folder. Feel its khaki-colored heft in your hands. Open it. Inside there is one letter of recommendation, and you have to decide whether or not to admit this candidate to your law school. Would you rather read two pages of thoughtful, informative text from someone who clearly knows the applicant well or would you prefer a paragraph or two from someone (maybe even someone famous!?!) with at best a tangential connection to him/her? See, admissions isn’t so hard.

Simplicity aside, here are a few tips:

The selection of recommenders is entirely up to you. Our only advice is that you identify two people who really know you well and can provide us with a rich and detailed sense of just who you are.

We also recommend at least one of your letters be from a professor or someone who knows your academic abilities well. It is law school after all. When you’re thinking about which instructors to ask, don’t just consider the classes in which you made an A. Think about that seminar you took last year that was really challenging or that upper-level elective that was so hard you had to go to office hours every week. Law school isn’t going to be easy, and we’re always interested in hearing how you responded to a challenge.

Furthermore, if you ask a professor to write a letter of recommendation for you, make sure she 1) knows who you are and/or 2) even truly wants to be one of your recommenders. Here is an example a rather common genus of recommendation letters we receive each and every year:

“Dear _______,

Applicant was in my class during Fall 2009. Upon reviewing my records, I see he made a B+ in my class. As my class is among the hardest at our school, I think he will do well in any law program into which he is accepted.

Please do not hesitate to contact me if I can be of further assistance in any way.

Thank you,

Professor Smith”

Um, okay. Do you find this helpful? No? Neither do we. Needless to say, it is a wasted opportunity. For those of you with more mathematical minds (between yesterday’s admissions “proof” and today’s statistical foray, this is the most math this blog has (and perhaps will) ever see), you have squandered approximately 20% of your application. At our law school, letters of recommendation really matter. They can keep you out. They can get you in. Consequently, don’t settle for the two sentence recommendation. You deserve better. Find someone (or someones) who can muster more than a paragraph on your behalf. Trust us, these people are out there. And better yet, you know them.

If you’ve been out of school for a while, you may feel finding a professor to write a recommendation for you is exceedingly difficult or that this person may not be able to speak to just who you are at this particular moment in your life. If this is the case, don’t worry. At the end of the day, it’s more important your writers know you well than they know you from the classroom.

We want as broad and complete a feel for you as a person as possible, so hearing from two recommenders who know you from the same context is often not as helpful or informative as the perspectives of two people with whom you’ve interacted in different settings can be.

Don’t pick a recommender simply because you believe we will be impressed by her letterhead. Trust us, we do not impress easily. We’ve seen it all, and no matter how important the title, if the recommender doesn’t really know you, you will have wasted an opportunity to give us further perspective on you as a person. Remember. It’s not about who you know, but rather who you are. We want to get to know you.

Get organized. Give your recommenders plenty of time to write your recommendation. Do not contact them two days (or even two weeks) before the application deadline. They may really like you, but such timing is hardly impressive, and your recommenders do have obligations independent of writing your letters of recommendation. And when asking someone to write a letter on your behalf, provide her with a copy of your resume. These “little” details can often make a tremendous difference as you put together your application and will ultimately make for a much more compelling file.

In conclusion, as we take a holistic approach to file review (i.e. we read everything you submit), you should think of your application as a whole. Too often, it seems, applicants fail to grasp how the application’s constituent parts might work in concert to create a complete picture of a candidate. We do not read personal statements and letters of recommendation in isolation. We read them with the rest of your file. Consequently, you should consider these documents not as individuated elements of loose story but rather as essential components of a larger, cohesive narrative. What can your recommenders say about you we would not necessarily know from the other parts of your application? How do they supplement the information we might glean from your application, personal statement and resume?

See, recommendations aren’t so hard. To quote Mike Skinner (or Thomas Paine, or really anyone for that matter), “[they’re] common sense, simple common sense.”

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