The process of applying to law schools often proves stressful and complicated. As you apply, you need to think carefully about which schools are the best fit while also ensuring your application is as strong as possible. While quantitative data like LSAT score and GPA matter a great deal, admissions officers also pay a lot of attention to the more qualitative elements of the application, from the personal statement to letters of recommendation.
Sometimes, applicants pay little attention to letters of recommendation aside from asking for them, which is a mistake. Extremely strong letters will make your application memorable to the people who read it. For that reason, you need to make sure you put your best foot forward with these letters. Some tips to keep in mind include:
1. Ask early and in person.
The key to getting a good letter is asking for it well ahead of the deadline. Generally, if you are asking a professor for a recommendation, you should do so at the start of the fall semester before that person’s schedule becomes too busy. When the recommender only has a small amount of time to finish the letter, the product will not likely be very reflective or impactful. Also, recommenders may resent being given only a few days and this could reflect in the content of the letter.
Ideally, you should ask for the letter in person. This gives you a chance to talk about why you are applying to law school and what information you are hoping that person is able to highlight. You may want to offer a list of talking points for the letter, or at least have one ready in case the recommender asks. That way, you can be sure that the letter touches on the important points you hope to make.
2. Choose recommenders who know you.
Many law school applicants try to pull strings to get recommendations from congressional representatives, judges, or even the big-name professors at their universities. Ultimately, letters have the greatest impact when it is clear that the recommender knows the candidate well. Unless you truly know these people, it is actually better to ask someone else.
Admissions officers will be more impressed by a strong narrative from a teaching assistant than a watery letter from a famous professor. Any recommendation from someone who does not truly know you is a missed opportunity as it will not make much of an impact. The most meaningful letters give real stories about the candidate and reflect on what that person can truly bring to the table. If the recommender cannot provide a narrative about your work, think about asking someone else.
3. Less is more for recommendations.
As a general rule of thumb when applying to law school, less is more. If you provide more information than is required, you should have a very good reason for doing so. Most programs will ask for at least two letters. In this case, two excellent letters will have much more of an impact than three lukewarm ones.
Only provide more than what schools ask for if it makes sense for your situation. For example, if you have been out of school for many years, it can make sense to have a third letter from a professional reference. Likewise, if you did something quite extraordinary, it can be helpful to include a recommendation from that experience. Otherwise, try to stay within the boundaries of what the school wants.
Also, while schools will be considerate of the fact that you have not been in school for some time, that does not mean it is appropriate to submit only professional letters rather than academic ones. These letters need to show that you will be a successful student.
4. Provide guidance for the recommender.
Some recommenders will have written many letters for law school admissions and may already have a good understanding of what they need to include. Even if this is the case, you should make it clear the specific points you would like emphasized as only you have a comprehensive view of your entire application.
At the same time, some people may not have much experience and will ask for your guidance. In this case, it is important to emphasize that letters are backward-looking and should speak to your academic performance up to this point rather than predicting success in law school. Anecdotes are better than adjectives.
Some recommenders will let you see the draft to give your input and doing so is fine, but you should never ask or expect to see the letter. Giving the impression that you want to see it can send the wrong message.
5. Develop a relationship with letter writers.
Applicants get the best letters when they invest time into the relationship they have with their recommenders. Often, this means starting to think early about who might write a letter, even in sophomore and junior years.
If you have someone in mind, you can try to take multiple classes with them, attend office hours, and put a lot of work into the papers you submit. Taking the time to talk regularly with these individuals will mean they have a lot to say about you as a student.
Also, do not think that doing poorly in a professor’s class means that person would not be a good letter writer. Law schools love to hear about candidates who grew and evolved over time. If you did poorly in the first class with the professor but then aced the next two, that can read as a great redemption story and show your capacity for personal growth.