Why Your Law School Letters of Recommendation Suck

Tiffany Sanders, J.D. Law School Admissions Leave a Comment

file0001387625417-300x225Letters of recommendation provide a unique opportunity for both applicants and admissions officers. Unfortunately, that opportunity is wasted because most law school letters of recommendation aren’t good. Of course, I don’t mean that they don’t say good things about you; most applicants are able to find and select professors, employers, colleagues and others who will make a positive recommendation.  When I say that most of these letters aren’t good, I mean that they aren’t well executed. As such, they tend to carry little or no weight–and that means missing an opportunity.

What’s Wrong with Most Law School Letters of Recommendation?

In a nutshell, most letters of recommendation don’t say anything. Oh, they have a positive tone and are probably chock full of adjectives generally perceived as positive, but that’s a given. Who’s going to ask for a letter of recommendation from someone who doesn’t like him?  Of course the professor you choose to write a recommendation letter is going to say good things about you.

In fact, I’ll bet I can tell you which good things. He’ll probably say that you’re a bright student and that you have a strong work ethic. He may mention that you’re a solid writer and have strong critical thinking skills. And, of course, so will several hundred other professors writing letters of recommendation for your competitors.

I’m sure I don’t have to tell you how much impact a letter of recommendation has when it is virtually identical to 89 of the past hundred letters an admissions officer has skimmed through. It won’t hurt your application, but it won’t do anything to tip the scales, either.

So, What Makes a Strong Law School Letter of Recommendation?

To a great degree, the same characteristics that make a strong law school personal statement create a powerful letter of recommendation: it should be personal, tell stories and illustrate the characteristics your recommender wants to highlight.

Some of the elements that go into creating a letter of recommendation with the power to influence the admissions committee include:

  • Context: The person writing your recommendation should briefly explain how he or she knows you and for how long, including enough information to make it clear that the writer has enough personal experience of you to make an informed recommendation.
  • Illustration: Though the optimal letter of recommendation will be about one single-spaced page, it shouldn’t be so concise that it fails to convey any meaningful information. Rather than simply saying that you’re a great student, the writer should share an example of how you set yourself apart.
  • Comparison: The admissions committee’s job is to choose among a large pool of applicants, many of whom have very similar numbers. That’s tough to do based on an application file, but your recommenders can help. For example, a college professor who has been teaching for a dozen years has seen hundreds of students pass through his classroom; if you’ve distinguished yourself in comparison to the typical student, or to an elite group he’s worked with, he should say so directly.

Letters of recommendation offer a powerful opportunity to let the admissions committee see you through the eyes of a qualified professional who knows more about you than the committee can possibly glean from your transcripts and your resume. Invest the effort to make the most of that opportunity and you’ll set yourself apart from many applicants who unwittingly throw it away.

Everything you need to know to make the most of your law school letters of recommendation:


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