Anna Ivey, a former dean of admissions at the University of Chicago Law School, says most letters of recommendation aren't very effective.
"They're very generic," says the author of "The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions." "They all sound the same."
A generic-sounding letter may not ruin an applicant's chance of admittance, but a poorly written one will increase the chance of denial – and a more thoughtful recommendation can make a less-competitive prospect appealing.
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If an applicant had unusual circumstances, a good letter of recommendation can "put academic performance in context," Ivey says.
To ensure that a letter of recommendation highlights a law school candidate's strong points, Ivey and other admissions experts recommend students take the following steps.
1. Make sure the recommendation will be positive: "Have the confidence to ask the professor whether they will give you a good recommendation," says Kim O'Brien. The director of admission at Concordia University School of Law has seen letters that were less favorable and described a recommender's doubts about a candidate.
"If you're not going to see it, you want to make sure that this person will be supportive," she says.
Reyes Aguilar, associate dean for admission and financial aid at the University of Utah S.J. Quinney School of Law, says an applicant should not only ask for a letter of recommendation, but for an excellent letter of recommendation.
"By putting that qualifier on there, a letter writer knows what the expectations are," he says.
Aguilar suggests applicants meet with the letter writer for 30 minutes before the writing process starts to make sure the writer is aware of a candidate's strong points.
He says candidates should be prepared to discuss why they want to go to law school and how they decided where to apply. Candidates should also bring a resume, transcripts and an outline of their personal statement.
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2. Choose quality over quantity: When an application suggests students can submit between two and four recommendations, how many should they submit?
Ivey says the norm is to submit two. "Don't submit more unless you have a good reason for it."
Lynda Cevallos, a pre-law coordinator for the nonprofit Council on Legal Education Opportunity, says three may be acceptable in certain cases, but urges candidates to make sure the letters are distinct.
"You might say, 'Okay, this professor I've known for two years. This professor can write about how I developed academically in his or her classroom.' There might be another one that talks about what a great speaker the student is," she says. "There might be another one that talks about academically how well this student did when there was a tough class."
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3. Build a relationship with potential references: Prospective students "should always be working to cultivate relationships with professors," says O'Brien, who suggests candidates try to find teachers who will recommend them, rather than friends or colleagues.
O'Brien says undergraduate students can go to a professor's office hours and participate in classroom discussions. Candidates that have already graduated can update former teachers on their current jobs and course work they've taken since completing their bachelor's degree, she says.
4. Get recommendations in early: "I would pick the date by which you plan to submit your application and go a month before that for your recommendation," says Ivey. For letter writers submitting by mail, it can take two weeks for the Law School Admission Council to process the letter, Ivey says.
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5. Select references who can write about specific qualities: A letter from a congressman or judge may not have much weight if it's evident that the writer doesn't know the applicant well.
"It becomes an empty letter of recommendation," says Cevallos. "It's a missed opportunity for the student."