Choosing Your Recommenders

You can begin deciding whom you'd like to write your recommendations as early as the spring of your junior year, and contacting the instructors as soon as you make your decision.

  • Asking instructors to write a recommendation shortly after you complete a course with them is an excellent idea. If you wait until later, the instructor's memory may be less sharp.
    • Even worse, the teacher may be on sabbatical, an archeological dig, or have left your college. Instructors often enthusiastically agree to write your recommendation, but they're just too busy. And it's hard to gently pester a professor who's in Nairobi.

New for 2010: Evaluations

It's not always easy to get a good recommendation. What can a military officer, a nursing supervisor, or a basketball coach say about your likelihood to succeed in law school? LSAC has attempted to alleviate the problem by adding evaluations, in which a person familiar with your work ranks you in specific fields.

Whether you're asking for a recommendation, an evaluation, or both, you need to gather information -- about yourself, and about the work you did for that person.

Preparing your Presentation

Preparing a presentation for your recommenders is as important as is choosing the right people.

  • If you are a current student, you can call, email, or stop by.  If you stop by, don’t bring all the papers etc with you, only make an appointment.  You want the recommender's undivided attention. 
  • If you are not currently a student, how you contact them depends on whether or not you have kept in touch. 
    • If you expect that the professor remembers you and will agree, then your approach can be fairly casual, as it would if you were still a student. 
    • If you are expecting that the professor will not remember you, then you need a more formal approach.  Prepare a package with all of the materials below and include an everyday picture of yourself. 
      • Send the package through the US mail.  FedEx often will not deliver to box numbers.  If you are sending it express, waive the signature.   

Providing the necessary information

To get the best possible recommendation, you must do more than choose the right people.  You must also provide them with the information they need and arrange the time to discuss the recommendation with them.

  • Never just walk into the recommender's office.  Make an appointment to see the person; you want to have at least a half hour of the recommender's undivided attention. 
  • Bring:
    • your transcript, in case the instructor wants to see it;
    • stamped envelopes addressed to LSDAS or the individual law schools;and
    • any papers you wrote for that instructor's course. 
      • If possible, bring a copy with the instructor's original comments on it;
  • Remind the instructor which class you had together and when.  Show the papers you wrote, or spend a few minutes triggering the instructor's memory with specific details of class projects or assignments. 
  • Tell your recommenders what the letter should say and ask them if they would be able to write this type of recommendation for you.
  • Listen carefully to the instructor's answer. 
    • Hesitation or ambivalence tells you the teacher can't give you a good recommendation; in that case, you're better off choosing someone else.
    • The exception to this is, if a teaching assistant suggests your asking a full professor, tell them admissions officers are not impressed by full professors.  It is much more important to have a recommender who knows you well.

You’ll also need to bring a waiver form (obtained from LSDAS). In order to do this, you must be registered with the LSDAS.  Go to LSAC and register if you haven’t already done so; if you’ve registered for the LSAT online or applied in a previous year, you’re already registered. 

Choosing your recommenders

  • Academic recommendations are the most highly valued, work recommendations are second, and recommendations in community or extracurricular activities are least highly valued, unless you've shown extraordinary dedication or leadership.
  • As a general rule, recommendations from alumni or political figures who happen to know you are worthless.
  • Always waive your right to see the recommendation letters. Admissions officers place more weight on a recommendation if the writer's privacy was guaranteed.

In choosing your recommenders, sit down with a copy of your transcript; it may help jog your memory. Try to show that your work is valued in different areas, by getting recommendations from instructors in three different subject areas: one in your major, the other two in subjects as diverse as possible. (If you had a double major, try to get a recommendation for each major.) English, history and philosophy are the admissions officers' favorite subject areas, since they tend to require substantial amounts of reading, writing, and analyzing. These are the best subjects for recommendations. Look for instructors for whom you wrote papers, especially instructors who wrote notes on papers you saved, which you can show to refresh the instructor's memory.

What if I'm not in school now?

Anyone who has been working full-time for two or more years should try to get an employment reference. If you graduated college in the last two years, most schools will still want to see an academic reference. If you graduated college more than a year or two ago, an academic recommendation may be difficult to obtain. If you had a favorite professor, try to contact that person. If you had previously obtained a recommendation from a professor for a different reason, see if you, the professor, or the career planning office has a copy on file. The instructor may be willing to update or at least reissue the earlier recommendation.

If you have been out of school five or more years, your work record may well be more important than an academic recommendation. This is especially true if your work has been on a management or professional level. However, these recommendations can present special difficulties. In addition to the problem of getting the recommender to commit your good qualities to paper, you may not be ready to tell your employer that you're planning to leave the job. In that case, look around the workplace for someone whom you trust to be both discreet and objective. A coworker on the same or higher level, or (office politics being what they are) a supervisor from another department may be willing to recommend you. You can include a note explaining the absence of a recommendation from your direct supervisor, or you can ask the chosen recommender to discuss the difficulty.

Choosing the Right Recommender

"Yes, I'll write you a recommendation"
does not mean "I'll say you walk on water."

Three of my clients are getting results way lower than they expected.  Two of them KNOW the problem is weak recs, or a lack of academic recs.  How do they know?  In one case, the school said so in writing; they asked the person, "Can't you get any academic recs?"  When he said no, so did they.  In another instance, the admissions officer "thought out loud" for me while reviewing a file:  "Hmm... the recommendations aren't so great."  The third one is sure the recs are awesome, but I'm looking at the wait list and rejection letters, and I'm not so sure.

You still doubt?  I interviewed Sarah Zearfoss from the U. of Michigan about recommendations last year.  You can read the interview right here

How Do I get the Recs to the Law Schools?

You send them to Law Services as part of the LSDAS service.  See the instructions in Getting Rec Letters to the Law Schools.   Follow the online instructions carefully. Remember that Law Services is the final arbiter, not me.  If my instructions don't seem to work, use theirs.  They change the system almost annually, so at least some of my instructions will be obsolete.


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