How important are recommendations?

🔥 In brief: Recommendations are VERY important, but they probably can’t make up for a below-median LSAT score or GPA.

✏️Why they’re important:

Recommendations are the only written material, other than your LSAT writing sample, that can’t be doctored. They are also the only opportunity for someone to speak explicitly about your curiosity, social virtues, and intellectual horsepower. It just doesn’t fly when you say, “I’m good at analyzing stuff. Trust me.” It does fly when your professors say the same thing. Asha Rangappa, former admissions dean at Yale, talks about how recommendations from professors in particular can burnish your academic credibility (Reference This - Yale Law School).

The vast majority of recommendations are “meh,” neither specific enough to boost your chances nor bad enough to damn you. The cardinal rule of choosing a recommender is that relationship trumps rank. A recommendation from, say, a congresswoman won’t change anyone’s mind unless it’s enthusiastic, vivid, and specific, and even then, it won’t place you in a constellation of intellectual achievement. A recommendation from a professor, on the other hand, can help show that you’re an intellectual star.

✏️Why recommendations can’t make up for a below-median LSAT score or GPA:

A law school admissions committee sets a target median LSAT/GPA for the entering class each admissions cycle. This is largely to keep the faculty happy and maintain the law school’s ranking in US News & World Report. A given candidate’s file will be dropped into a “bucket” with hundreds of other candidates who have a very similar LSAT score and GPA pairing. Throughout the admissions cycle, when the Admissions Committee needs to adjust the admitted class median LSAT or GPA based on the behavior of the applicant pool, they will go to a particular bucket of LSAT/GPA files and determine which ones are the most desirable. Thus, a candidate with a 165/3.6 is not really competing against a 170/3.8; she is trying to catch the committee’s eye over another 165/3.6.

It is at this point that all the LORs, essays, and resumes will flesh out a candidate beyond the raw numbers. Committee members (faculty, deans, maybe student readers) may literally sit down and go through individual files, asking the admissions officer, “So what is the story with this one? What is her deal?” Letters of recommendation can help answer that question and distinguish an applicant from everyone else in her bucket.

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