Getting to know your professors: Now is the time!

My classes were all big lectures.

This is such a big place.

I never had the opportunity to talk with my professors one-on-one.

Attending a Big 10 school has many advantages, but often “small class sizes” is not one of them. Why is it critical for pre-law students to develop relationships with professors, and how can you go about it?

Whether you choose to apply to law school, graduate school, or job opportunities, you will need recommendations–and this is true throughout your lifetime. (If you ever intend to apply for a promotion or another job, you will again need references.) Building and maintaining these types of professional relationships is a skill you will use throughout your entire professional life.

As we focus on law school, though, as a general rule we suggest that law school applicants with less than 3 years of full-time postgraduate work experience provide two academic and one non-academic letter of recommendation. (Some law schools will require 1 or 2 letters but most schools will accept 3 to 4 letters.) Applicants who have 3+ years of post-graduation work experience might consider submitting two work and one academic letter, to emphasize the extent of your present work skills.

Academic letters are from professors or teaching assistants who have been in a position to assess your work in the classroom and compare you to other students. Non-academic letters can be from a work supervisor, internship supervisor, volunteer site supervisor, coach, or someone else who knows you well but is not a personal friend or family member, so they still have some objectivity.

You will need to get to know your professors (or TAs) in order to obtain those two academic letters. How can you do that even at a big place like Illinois?

  • Take the same professor/TA for multiple classes if you are able. This may require some advanced planning.
  • Go to office hours.  Many undergrads are terrified of office hours, because it sometimes feels as if you are taking up someone’s valuable time. However, most professors would welcome the opportunity to discuss course work, get to know their students, and talk about their discipline. Remember that they were once in your shoes too, and needed recommendations for graduate school. How can you approach the office hours visit to make it less stressful?
    • Read the current assignments and bring with you a few questions and/or observations about them.
      • What did you find most interesting or challenging?
      • Is there anything that confused you?
      • Have you drawn any connections between assignments that haven’t been discussed in class–or that you’d like to discuss more?
    • If you like, you can tell the professor that you are making an effort to get to know all of your professors this semester.
    • Ask the professor questions about his/her professional path, like:
      • What are you currently working on?
      • How did you find your passion for this material or discipline?
      • Why did you decide to assign this particular work over others?

You don’t have to make it lengthy–even a 15 minute chat helps to develop a connection and let the professor get to know you. Go a few times during the semester to develop a solid connection.

Non-academic recommenders, such as an internship or work supervisor, may not know how to go about writing a law school recommendation. How can you handle that situation?

  • Share the handout we posted over on our Compass page about letters of recommendation that lists the type of qualities and skills that law schools value.
  • Remind your recommender about the work that you’ve done, including any big projects, team contributions, written materials, or presentations that you created on the job.
  • Suggest skills that your recommender could write about–for example: I’m hoping you could include details about the website redesign that I completed.
  • Ask the recommender to highlight any especially relevant transferrable skills, such as: marketing, working with clients, resolving conflict, writing complex reports, giving presentations, facilitating financial transactions.

IF you are applying to law school this cycle, then NOW is the time to ask for those letters of recommendation so that you can complete your applications in November or early December.


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