The letters of recommendation requiremen is probably the least understood aspect of the application process. Although you may not have control over the content of the letters you can exercise control over who you ask to write those letters. Remember, like a personal statement, your letters of recommendation are an opportunity to give us a sense of who you are. Not only do they provide us with insight into work ethic, the evolution of your academic/ professional/ intellectual evolution, but also your personality and perspective, factors which are no less important to us than test scores and GPAs in forming a great class of students. So here are a few tips from the Admissions Office.
Tip #1: Choose Recommenders Wisely
Select someone who can give us substantive descriptions of your academic abilities and character. Academic abilities include writing, analytical ability, classroom discussion skills and work habits. That person can as easily be the TA with whom you worked in class(es) as the head of your department. Similarly a more junior colleague or even a peer from the workplace often spend far more time with you and thus gain far more insight about you than your boss. Those in more senior positions are often asked to write letters of recommendation and even if they don’t know you particularly well, they will frequently still agree. But because of the volume of requests those individuals will sometimes use a form letter that is vague and tells us nothing.
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. I have read lengthy, detailed letters highlighting all a candidate’s weaknesses instead of her strengths!
Tip #2: Follow the School’s Policy on the Number and Type of Letters
Although most schools require more than one letter, quantity is not as important as quality. Be sure to check to see exactly what they are looking for both with respect to the number of letters and the type of letter. At Chicago, we require two letters, but will accept up to 4.
Generally if you finished your education more than 3-5 years ago, one academic letter and one professional recommender is fine; however, if you are more recent graduate aim for two academic letters. Both types are usually acceptable for most schools and, again, the purpose of the letter is to give us qualitative information about to complement the quantitative information contained in the rest of your application. An employer can write a very good letter of recommendation for law school, but make sure they understand we are interested in your law school aptitude, not your business acumen. Writing, hard work, research, and teamwork are skills valued both by law schools and the business world. This leads us to Tip #3 …
Tip #3: Talk with Your Recommenders
In my past experience and in speaking with colleagues recommenders are often flattered but afraid themselves to ask for direction as to why law school is your next step and what admissions officers are hoping to learn about you. Arrange for at least a 15-minute time to talk with the person via telephone or, even better, in person at least once to discuss your law school plans. Offer them copies of your resume and your personal statement. For academic references a copy of the paper you wrote for their class (the graded original, if possible) may also be helpful. You can refresh an employer’s recollection of your work by incorporating a discussion about the quality of your contributions to the workplace and what they would say is the skill you’ve best honed during your employment. For example, I asked an employer for any constructive criticisms he had about my past performance and how I might improve going forward. This prompted him not only to give me helpful information about the weaknesses to ameliorate, but also to describe all the things I did well and my positive characteristics.
Ask your recommenders to focus on 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. Similarly ask your recommender to also speak to what kind of person you are -- your interests, passions and voice. We want students who are not only academically and intellectually talented but who also have interesting perspectives and experiences to share in and out of the classroom.
Don’t forget to cover logistics and make it as easy as possible for your recommender to submit her letter. Give them clear, preferably written 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.
Finally, and most importantly, keep in touch with and update the person throughout the process, both before and after that person submits her recommendation letter. Recommenders agree to take the time to write you a letter because they are interested in and supportive of your new endeavor and will want to know about your successes – particularly because they play a part in that process!
Tip #4: Give Recommenders Ample Time to Submit Their Letters
Like most of the other items in the application, this is something that can be done EARLY. Undergraduate 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, 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 asking for the letter now try to give the recommender as much time as possible. This is particularly true with academic references that are bombarded with requests during the application season. Remember people are also applying to graduate and other professional schools as well as seeking post-graduation employment.
Similarly, employers are busy with deadlines and projects and they often need a bit more time to write letters given the fact that most do not have anywhere near the same letter-writing “education” that academic references do.
Bottom line: choose someone who can speak enthusiastically about your intellectual curiosity, academic and professional performance, as well as give us another idea of what kind of perspective, voice and personality you will bring to the Law School. Our students bring more than just their brains to the Law School which s how we maintain the vibrant, close-knit community that makes U of C so unique.