Fall Applicants: Tips on Getting Great Letters of Recommendation

‘Tis the perfect season to be lining up your letter of recommendation writers. If you haven’t yet found your 2-3 willing souls, now is a great time to get some firm commitments on the table. I hear of a lot of students say things like “well, I talked to someone about it” and “I mentioned it to a professor”. That is not a commitment! A commitment means you asked and the person said yes. It means that you both know what is expected, and by when.

So, how can you go about getting the best recommendation letters? Here are my Top 5 Tips for Getting Great Letters of Recommendation.

1. Don’t procrastinate. Seriously, do it now. Right now.
The number one challenge I see is applicants waiting to ask for a recommendation until it’s a bad time for the recommender. Many students are surprised to find that their professors’ schedules are a bit different than student schedules. Remember that in addition to teaching this course, your professors and other university administrators are: teaching other courses, grading papers/exams, taking sabbatical, doing research, publishing articles, hiring and training graduate assistants, taking classes, serving on committees, supervising staff…the point here is that the person asking for the recommendation should consider the schedule of the recommender. A good general rule is to allow at least six weeks for your recommender to complete a recommendation. The best time to ask? During the summer, or at the beginning of the fall semester (for people applying to law school this fall). The worst time to ask? Anytime after midterms, or during winter break. This is when professors are busiest–or gone.

2. Consider your approach.
Give an out
. Remember that for law school your goal is to get GREAT recommendations. It’s competitive admissions, after all, and a lukewarm “this student took my class and got a B+” is not much help. When you approach your letter writers–whether via email or in person–you should always ask if they feel comfortable that they can write a great letter for you. Give them a chance to say no. If you sense hesitation or your recommender is uncertain, it is in your best interest to move on. I can’t tell you how many times I hear from law school deans that lukewarm letters are simply not helpful. What a waste of everyone’s time!

Also, get it in writing. In addition to being great legal advice generally, this really applies to letters of recommendation. Get the details in writing. You’ll want to confirm the recommender’s commitment and the time frame by which s/he will submit the letter. It doesn’t have to be formal; you can simply send an email that says “Thanks so much for agreeing to write my recommendation! It sounded like you could submit it by October 1, which is great because I hope to complete my applications around October 15. Please let me know if there is anything else I can provide to assist you with the letter.”

3. Think carefully about who knows you and your academic skills best.
Actually, this requires you to think about what law schools want to know. First, they want to know that you are likely to succeed academically in their program, and this means that they want to hear that you have great writing, analytical, problem-solving, and communication skills. Which of your professors can speak to those skills? You’ll also want to pick an upper-level class in which you excelled; it hardly helps to have a recommendation from a professor (or TA) who taught you and 300 other people in an intro class three years ago.

Side note: This process requires that you make an effort. Many students will reach senior year and then say something like “It’s a big school and I never went to office hours or talked to any of my professors.” Well, here’s the thing: that is a wasted opportunity. Yes, we are a big institution. But if you want any kind of good academic recommendations (whether for law school or any graduate program), you need to take the time to attempt to get to know a few professors. Go to office hours. Ask questions about the course. Or just have a conversation about their career path. Most professors become professors because they want to teach and mentor–and they like getting to know their students. They were once where you are, so don’t feel intimidated. Like the general population, some professors are friendly and others aren’t, so please don’t be discouraged if you approach one professor who seems disinterested–just move along to someone else.

4. Round out your academic recommendations with a different perspective.
After law schools are convinced that you have the academic skills to succeed, they want to know what else you bring to the table. They want to see qualities and values such as leadership, responsibility, ethical behavior, ability to manage money, working as a group, or a commitment to volunteering or to a certain cause. In other words, every school wants its students to be smart and to reflect well on the profession. Who can write a recommendation that shows qualities beyond academic brilliance? It could be a work supervisor, internship supervisor, volunteer site supervisor, a mentor, or a coach. Think about the qualities that you have demonstrated outside of the classroom, and ask your recommender if s/he can speak to those specific elements. This can really round out your recommendations and add a new perspective to what makes you a great candidate.

5. Follow up with your recommender.
You’re dealing with a professional adult who said s/he would submit the letter. You shouldn’t have to remind them. It is frustrating that some professors and other professionals agree to write recommendations but aren’t professional enough to submit them–either in a timely way or sometimes at all. But it happens all the time. (And, in fairness, we all sometimes have extenuating circumstances.) There isn’t much you can do except stay in contact with your recommender. Check your LSAC account to see if the recommendation has been submitted by your agreed-upon time frame. If not, be “pleasantly persistent” about it. It’s better to resolve any delay in October than to wait until January and finally reach out, only to discover that the recommender has been on medical leave and isn’t expected back for another month. Trust me, this happens more than you would expect. Put a note on your calendar to follow up on the agreed upon “due date”, and again two weeks later if the letter hasn’t been submitted.

So there you have my best tips on getting great LORs. For another perspective, check out the tips (along with an awesome Flight of the Concords song!) from consultant Anna Ivey. Then go and talk to your recommenders. Today.