How to Pick Your Recommenders

Check yourself before you rec yourself. The cardinal rule of recommendations is this: get an awesome letter, not an important letter writer.

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Let’s break it down:

1. Think relationship, not rank.

If your recommender doesn’t know you well, she won’t be able to write you a good letter. Admissions officers won’t be wowed by the status of the writer; they won’t say yes simply because you got a senator or big-shot alumnus to advocate on your behalf. It’s better to get a detailed recommendation from a TA who’s worked with you closely than a vague recommendation from an important professor who barely knows you. Choose someone who can back up her assertions with stories or other specifics.

2. Get academic.

If you submit two recommendations, at least one should be academic. If you submit three recommendations, two should be academic. Try to get your recommendation from a professor whose course was difficult, advanced, and heavy on verbal reasoning. The admissions committee is trying to figure out whether you’ll do well in law school, and your work in a philosophy or English seminar is going to seem more relevant than your work in, say, Local Flora and Fauna.

Ironic as it may seem, an academic adviser cannot speak from firsthand experience about your academic ability; your academic recommendations should come from professors or TAs.

If you’ve been out of college for a long time and you can’t track down your old professors—or you can’t find any who remember you well enough to write a recommendation—the admissions committee will probably give you a pass. Still, you should consider taking classes at a local school, both to prepare yourself for law school and to get a current academic recommendation.

If you’ve been in the workforce for more than a couple years, it is a good idea to get a professional recommendation, as long as you also secure an academic recommendation.

If you’ve done any legal work in a professional capacity, you may want to ask your supervisor for a letter, but only if you think she’ll write a great one. You don’t need a recommendation that discusses your law work.

3. Choose someone who wants to write you a good recommendation.

At the risk of stating the obvious, your recommender should (1) like you, and (2) be impressed with you. If a recommender expresses even a hint of hesitation, thank her for her time and ask someone else.

If you’re not sure where you stand with a potential recommender, you should ask. Tell her that you would appreciate her honesty, and that you can ask someone else if she doesn’t have the time or inclination to write you a strong letter.

Sometimes it’s hard for teachers to say no. I’ve been in this position myself. When a student asks me for a recommendation, I feel like it would be lazy or mean to refuse, even if it would probably be in the student’s best interest. That’s why it’s so important to give your potential recommender an out, and to emphasize that you would be more than happy to ask someone else.

4. Choose an experienced teacher if possible.

Imagine a professor who says that you are one of the best students she’s ever had. Her statement will carry a lot more weight if she’s taught for twenty years than it will if she’s taught for two months.

5. Choose a good writer.

You might want to review your communications with your potential recommender, or check out what she has published. If you’re not impressed, go with someone else.

6. Choose someone reliable.

It doesn’t matter how eloquent someone’s letter is if it never gets delivered. I once had a professor who responded well to my work but never ended up reading my thesis. When I needed a recommendation, I looked elsewhere.

Secondary Considerations

I’ll say it again: your first priority is to get the best possible letters, period. But if you’re still having trouble choosing your recommenders, think about these second-order concerns.

1. Can you buttress your brand?

Say you present yourself as a champion of the underserved. You may want to buttress your brand by getting a recommendation from someone who’s overseen your volunteering work or taught a class about poverty and policy.

2. Can you complement your application?

Sometimes you can use your recommendations to highlight accomplishments that you can’t discuss elsewhere in depth. For example, if you wrote a fantastic thesis, you might get a recommendation from your thesis advisor. If you worked as a professor’s research assistant, you might ask the professor to talk about your archival skills. If you started a speaking series about race, you might let a recommender note that it changed the campus conversation—such a claim would sound grandiose coming from you.

3. Should you educate the admissions committee about your academic work?

Admissions officers are likely to consider some majors easy, including linguistics, theater, creative writing, visual arts, and identity subjects like women’s or Chicano studies. Similarly, admissions officers might assume that a masters degree in the humanities is fluffy. If you’re proud of your work in one of these fields, you might want to get a recommendation from a professor who can explain your program’s rigor.

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