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Getting Good Letters of Recommendations

published September 26, 2013

By Author - LawCrossing
Published By
( 11 votes, average: 4.2 out of 5)
What do you think about this article? Rate it using the stars above and let us know what you think in the comments below.
Beyond filling in your name and address and completing the waiver section, you don't need to write anything on the appraisal forms. You simply need to persuade each of your recommenders to fill them out.

At the outset, you should choose your recommenders carefully. Try to find people with whom you have worked closely. Professors with whom you have done independent study papers, or in whose seminars you participated in thoughtful discussions, or from whom you have taken several courses are most likely to be familiar with your work. Choose them, rather than possibly more prestigious professors with whom you have had little contact. If a professor has frequently made approving comments about your work or written warm compliments on your essays, he or she is more likely to write similar approbations in your letters. Professors who critique your written work carefully and write copious comments on your exams and term papers are more likely to write similarly copious letters.

You'll need to contact each of your recommenders at least twice. Although you can communicate with them by letter or telephone, you'll get the best results if you visit them personally. As soon as you've finalized your application list, visit the recommenders to ask whether they will be willing to serve as references. For traditional students, this initial contact will come very early in the senior year: late August or early September. Approach professors during their office hours and employers at some convenient time when they are not busy (not Monday morning). If you don't have regular contact with a recommender, call for an appointment. At this initial stage, you need do little more than remind the recommenders of who you are and explain what they will have to do. Be modest and polite; the purpose of this first visit is to create a favorable impression and to remind them (in ways that I'll describe in the next section) that they think well of you.

Always indicate how many letter you will need. Don't hesitate to ask recommenders to write letters to five to fifteen law schools. In most cases, they won't write fifteen letters; they'll write one letter and copy it, with perhaps a personalizing end paragraph or two.

To make it as easy as possible for your recommenders, give them the forms for all the law schools you are applying to at the same time, during your second visit to each recommender's office. This second visit should occur before you mail your application forms to the law schools. For traditional students, it will come in late September, October, or early November-sooner if you must enclose the completed letters with your application and later if the recommenders will mail them directly to the law schools. (If you decide later in the year to apply to additional law schools, you can return to each recommender with more forms. Most professors will cooperate-at least once. Try to avoid repeated impositions on their time.) At your second visit, you will also provide the information each recommender will need to write good letters for you.

Bad Letters and Good Letters

But what is a good letter? It's easy enough to imagine bad letters: Mr. worked for me for two years, and he was such a consistent screw up that I hardly know where to begin . . . or Ms xxxxxx isn't the worst student I've had in my twenty years of teaching, but she came close . ..


I strongly suspected Mr. of plagiarizing his term paper in my course in, but I didn't report it at the time because I couldn't prove it. Later on, I came across the proof I needed, and I can say without fear of libel that Mr. is a complete scoundrel.

In real life, it's rare for recommenders to try to discourage the law school from admitting you. Most people seem to subscribe to a code of chivalry; if they think you shouldn't be admitted to law school,' they'll try to avoid having to write damning letters of recommendation by refusing to write any letters at all. If you visit a teacher to ask for a reference and he begs off, perhaps with a lame excuse, don't try to change his mind. He may be signaling his unwillingness to hurt you.

This means that you can usually expect your letters to be good ones-in the sense that at least they won't be bad ones. But there are good letters and there are good letters. If I think an applicant is a poor prospect, I have the option of writing something like this:

I have known for three years, during which time (according to his transcript) he has been in three of my classes. I remember him as a quiet and diligent fellow who didn't speak much. He seemed pleasant and nice. And he must have some intelligence because he received two Bs and an A. I'm sure that his political science studies here will qualify him to do law school work.

This is not a bad letter. I haven't actually said that this student is a dud. But if that's all I write-and law schools receive hundreds of similar letters each year-then my letter is unlikely to help him. A helpful letter is detailed and usually much longer. It doesn't just say "John is intelligent" or "John is diligent and hardworking"; it provides evidence of these traits by describing some event, accomplishment, or incident. A good letter says

John has considerable writing skill, as evidenced by the fact that he wrote the best essay final exam in my course in constitutional law.

or John is an extremely hardworking student. He outlined each of the constitutional law cases that he was assigned so skillfully that I photocopied his outlines and distributed them to the weaker students.


John worked as one of my salesmen for three years, and each year he sold more than any other salesman in my district, and more than he had the year before.


John's M. A. thesis is a genuine contribution to the study of because he went back to the original documents in the library and corrected the errors of professor's nineteenth- century book on the subject.

A detailed letter is useful; it supplies independent evidence that the candidate possesses some skill or character trait useful in law school. An admissions official can use this evidence to plug gaps in the candidate's record or gain an outside perspective on the information the candidate supplied on the application form.

If professors and prelaw advisers are unable to compare applicants to other individuals with whom the law school is familiar, they are encouraged to compare them with their fellow graduating seniors. A prelaw adviser may say that an applicant "is the best of the thirty or so seniors we have this year who want to go to law school." Many recommendation forms have spaces for academic recommenders to note the candidate's relative placement in his or her graduating class.

In summary, a good letter of recommendation is useful in the sense that it provides detailed evidence that the law school can use. This being the case, how do you get your recommenders to write the more detailed and useful letters rather than the vaguer non-useful kind?

published September 26, 2013

By Author - LawCrossing
( 11 votes, average: 4.2 out of 5)
What do you think about this article? Rate it using the stars above and let us know what you think in the comments below.