Making the Most of Your Law School Recommendation Letters: The Basics

Your law school application package is critical to differentiating you from other applicants with similar LSAT scores and GPAs.  You should think conceptually about the picture you want to paint for admissions committees; while each individual application document is important, what’s more crucial is that you present a truthful, holistic, coherent and attractive portrait.

Your law school letters of recommendation are a vital part of any law school application because they provide a unique showcase opportunity.  Like your “hard” data (and unlike your personal statement), your recommendation letters show what others think of you in their words.   Unlike hard data (and like your law school personal statement), they are personal rather than numerical.

You will certainly want letters that focus on your academic abilities; if you have valuable non-academic experience, you will likely want a letter from one or more relevant non-academic recommenders.  That is standard advice and good as far as it goes.  But recommendation letters are badly underutilized by many applicants (and in some cases, damaging to the portrait applicants want to present).  Applicants make common and more subtle mistakes, most of which arise from treating recommendations letters as “add-ons” or confirmations rather than as a chance to add luster, depth and new information to an application.  Below are two linchpins for your letters.  In a subsequent post, we’ll talk about some “nuts and bolts” for obtaining maximum-impact letters.

  1. Understand what you want your letters to accomplish.  Usually, you will want your letters to showcase strengths.  Except in rare circumstances, you should not use letters to explain away weaknesses.  Which strengths?  You need to remember the skill sets that law schools want you to demonstrate to them, and have a well-developed idea of the portrait you want to paint.  Your recommenders should be selected on the basis of their ability to help make that picture clear to admissions personnel.  Of course, sometimes an applicant should adjust slightly the desired portrait to be certain that her or his letters are the best obtainable.  The interaction between all parts of the application package is why it’s important to think long and hard about your overall strategy before deciding who your recommenders will be.  Like an arresting splash of color in a great painting, each recommendation letter should draw attention to and intensify a particular strength (and not the same one).
  2. Your letters must be memorable and specific.  Generic letters from recommenders (no matter how well-known the recommender is) are a waste of scarce space.  A good rule of thumb is that if you should have directly worked with a recommender.  Who the writers are matters less—much less—than what they say. A letter from Senator Pillsbury that says you worked on her staff as an intern, did and great job and will make a great lawyer blah, blah, blah, will impress few—it will appear generic (because it is), and others will have similar letters from Senator Kraft.  In contrast, a letter from the same person that, in the context of discussing your leadership abilities, notes a particular discussion in which you deftly turned a heated argument between seemingly irreconcilable viewpoints on a specific topic into a reasoned discussion in which the sides began to see the reasonableness of their opponents’ position and found common ground, tells a law school admission committee a lot about you and what you will bring to the incoming law school class.  A packet of letters like that, each emphasizing a particular characteristic that you want law schools to know about you, will go a long way to improving your chance for admission and merit-based financial aid relative to those with otherwise similar application packages, and will often help you jump into competition with those who might otherwise be slightly above you in the admission and aid pecking order.

These are basics.  In a future Advise-In blogpost, we’ll give you tips on how you can help ensure that your recommenders are the right people, and how you can help them to write the best possible letter to strengthen your application.  As someone who has written a lot of recommendation letters, I can assure you that you that a good recommender will be thrilled to get helpful direction from you.  It makes her or his job easier and the letter better—the best result for everyone (especially you)!

~ by Kyle Pasewark at Advise-in Solutions on April 7, 2010.

5 Responses to “Making the Most of Your Law School Recommendation Letters: The Basics”

  1. Hello,very nice informative and nice article having great stuff.thanks for posting.

  2. […] Law School Recommendation Letters: A Few Nuts and Bolts Earlier this year, I talked about the basics of letters of recommendation for law school applications.  Recommendation letters often receive the least attention from law […]

  3. […] Law School Recommendation Letters: A Few Nuts and Bolts Earlier this year, I talked about the basics of letters of recommendation for law school applications.  Recommendation letters often receive the least attention from law […]

  4. […]             –think of your application package as a portrait, and understand the place and value of each piece of it in relation to the key skills law schools are looking for and the holistic picture of yourself you’re trying to create; […]

  5. […] recommendation letters for the law school application process.  The first described some basic conceptual features of recommendation letters and the second provided a couple of more specific recommendations.  […]

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