Letters of recommendation are another very important part of your application. Each year, we receive many questions about what your letters should say and who should write them. We read each letter closely, which means that it is very important to take them seriously! We have previously posted three very informative "Tips and Tricks" on letters of recommendation, but I will offer some additional thoughts below.
As you may imagine, the majority of letters of recommendation that we receive are positive (which makes sense considering that you get to choose who recommends you) and it can be difficult to set yourself apart from other applicants simply with your recommendations. However, there are a few ways (both good and bad) that your recommendations can make you stand out. A thorough and glowing recommendation can help us get to know you and show us the unique contribution that you will make to the U of C community. A great recommendation will make us feel like we must have you in our classrooms! On the other hand, providing only generic letters or – even worse – a negative recommendation can be highly detrimental to your application. Applicants are often concerned because they have less control over this part of the application process. While that is true, you can still affect the quality of your recommendations if you understand what we are looking for in these letters and choose your recommenders wisely.
What will make your letters of recommendation stand out? The best recommendations offer substantive, enthusiastic assertions about your intellectual ability and strengths as a student demonstrated by specific, detailed examples. We want to hear about your writing ability, analytical skills, willingness to think critically and challenge your views, intellectual curiosity, motivation, and contribution to the classroom. In addition, relevant personal characteristics, such as work ethic, maturity, leadership potential, professionalism, and ability to work with others, often give us a more complete sense of what you have to offer.
The best recommendations bring these qualities to life through examples and comparisons – we love to read about specific examples of your work! Quantitative comparisons (e.g., applicant was by far the best student in my class and I would place her in the top five percent of students that I have taught) are extremely helpful. Illustrative anecdotes from statements that you made in class or during office hours, or a discussion of your analysis in a specific research paper can really give us a sense of who you are as a student.
How do you obtain such a recommendation? Choose recommenders that know you well enough to write a substantive letter. This means that you have to establish relationships with your professors. Even if you are applying to law school this year, you still have time to get to know your professors. Start participating in class, visit during office hours to discuss assignments or topics covered that day, chat with professors after class, turn in all assignments on time, and put forth your absolute best effort on all tests or papers. However, make sure to give your recommenders sufficient time to write the recommendation. Provide a copy of your resume, personal statement, any significant papers or work product that you prepared for the recommender, and take time to discuss your law school plans with your recommender. The more interaction that you have with your recommender, the better equipped he or she will be to write a great recommendation! If you have more time, start establishing your relationships with professors now.
What should you avoid? This may sound obvious, but do not ask someone to write a recommendation if they have not met you personally or if you are concerned that his or her comments may not be entirely positive. If your first interaction with the recommender is asking him or her to write a recommendation, this person may not be the best choice. Do not ask a well-known politician, judge, or prominent alumni on the basis of their name and title alone. In fact, choosing a recommender on that basis often leads to a generic, nondescript recommendation. We care about the content of the letter – not the recommender’s name. It is far more important to choose someone who knows you well and is familiar with your work. Generic recommendations are not interesting or helpful and make us concerned that you could not find someone to write a more substantive recommendation for you. As a general rule, family members and family friends should not write your recommendations.
What about employers? While we prefer academic recommendations from professors, employers may also provide useful recommendations as long as they can speak to your intellectual qualities and attributes that are relevant to your potential as a student (e.g., work ethic, motivation, intellectual curiosity, dedication). As many of our students have post-graduate work experience, we understand that some applicants may wish to ask their employer for a recommendation.
Finally, we require all letters of recommendation to be submitted through the LSDAS letter of recommendation service. We require two letters, but will accept up to four.
I hope that is helpful. We are so excited to start reading applications and get to know this year’s applicants!