(Note: this post is a continuation of a previous post on Letters of Recommendation, found here)
WHAT: Okay, now that we have an author picked out for your letter of recommendation, what should they say? While there are no set rules, here are a few guidelines. We like to hear about your writing, your classroom participation, your willingness to challenge your views, and your ability to think on your feet. Quantitative comparisons are helpful (for example, an applicant is 'in the top 5% of students' or 'one of the best students I taught that year') as are discussions of your writing ('the student wrote an excellent paper on Plato, which was rigorously researched and effectively argued'). Specifics are very helpful, as are anecdotes about your classroom performance or writing ability.
HOW: How do you help your recommender write a positive recommendation? Try to meet with them at least once to discuss your law school plans, provide them with a resume and a copy of your personal statement, maybe even a copy of the paper you wrote for their class (the graded original, if possible) and keep in touch with them throughout the process. This can be very helpful for them when they sit down to write your letter, and will hopefully help create a more focused, enthusiastic letter.
One important bit of advice: if the person you ask to write a letter for you seems reluctant, or expresses concern about writing it, take that as a sign that you should use someone else. Also: be polite, kind, helpful, and respectful throughout the process; this person is taking time out of their schedule to help you, so make sure and accommodate their schedule and obligations.
WHEN: When should you ask for a letter of recommendation? Like most of the other items in the application, this is something that can be done EARLY. Your career services office will usually keep letters of recommendation in their files for a number of years, so if you had a great rapport with a professor and you're only a sophomore, ask for a recommendation now! If you wait two years, memories fade, professors relocate, and if you work after graduation, it becomes even harder for the recommender to remember you.
If you are a senior and need the letter for this year, try to give the professor as much time as possible, they often have many letters to write, along with their other obligations. Make sure and give the writer clear instructions on what to do with the letter, and provide any necessary forms. A stamped, addressed envelope is also helpful, and shows your professionalism. Make sure that the letter was mailed and received, as many applicant files are delayed months by late letters of recommendation. A thank-you note or email is a nice way to finalize the matter, once you have verified that the letter has been received. I also think it is polite to let your recommenders know where you decide to attend, so that they can feel their efforts were worthwhile. You never know when you might want their recommendation for something else!
WHY: A great letter of recommendation is a very powerful asset in the admissions process. Along with the personal statement, it gives a sense of your character and personality, through the eyes of someone who is charged with critically assessing your performance and aptitude. A strong letter transforms the grades on your transcript into a narrative, and forecasts how you will perform in our classroom.